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Nov 9, 2012 | 11:45 GMT

Afghanistan, Pakistan: Preparing for the Taliban Comeback

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

On Nov. 5, a number of Afghan lawmakers admonished Afghan Minister of Water and Energy Mohammad Ismail Khan for seeking to create a group of militias, led by a council of former mujahideen, to combat Taliban insurgents after NATO troops leave in 2014. Also on Nov. 5, a key anti-Taliban political party in Pakistan announced it would mobilize the country against the jihadist movement through a national vote on whether the public wants a secular Muslim state or a government more in line with the Taliban's goals.

Afghan and Pakistani opponents of the Taliban lack confidence in their governments' abilities to deal with the Taliban threat in the post-NATO period and are therefore taking unilateral actions that will complicate official efforts to contain the jihadists' comeback after 2014.

The lawmakers criticizing Khan said that unofficial militias promote civil war and that the proposal undermines the morale of the Afghan army, intelligence and police services. Khan, who has close ties to Iran and is the top warlord in the western province of Herat, has for months been negotiating with like-minded warlords for the creation of this fighting force. By Nov. 8, there were reports that the council was distributing weapons to residents of Herat province, though the council rejected the reports.

Khan's initiative shows how even senior government officials have very little faith in the capabilities of the Afghan state security apparatus that has been developed over the past decade under U.S. and NATO supervision. Furthermore, Khan and warlords like him have more faith in their private militias to protect them from an unencumbered Taliban movement. It makes sense for the Herati warlord to be concerned since his area was among the first to fall under Taliban control when the jihadist movement arose in 1994, given its proximity to the Taliban heartland in the south.

Khan's proposal speaks to the fear of recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political authority and consequently their security presence in the country. Also, Khan and others like him see a justifiable role for their militias that could strengthen their own positions. This council of militias would help protect them from challenges to their authority after the NATO withdrawal as well as provide a venue for cooperation and support from Iran

Iran's Stake in Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran

Map of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran

Khan's efforts are not just a function of domestic conflict in post-NATO Afghanistan. On the contrary, these efforts highlight Iran's interests in Afghanistan. Khan and many others among the anti-Taliban factions are allies of Iran, which wants to make sure the Taliban do not undermine their goals in the southwest Asian nation. Therefore, it is very likely that this call for forming militias is being supported or even driven by the Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

After the 9/11 attacks, Iran played an important role in helping the United States oust the Taliban regime through intelligence sharing and by prompting its allies to work with the United States. There were several rounds of extensive direct talks between U.S. and Iranian officials. Shortly thereafter, the Bush administration took an aggressive stance toward the clerical regime — grouping it with the Iraqi Baathist regime and North Korea in the "axis of evil." In response, the Iranian regime began supporting certain elements among the Taliban, primarily through financial and military means. By then the Taliban had devolved into an insurgency and gave Tehran leverage in its complex dealings with Washington.

Now that U.S. and NATO forces are beginning to withdraw, it is in Iran's interest to ensure that the Taliban remain a problem for the United States but do not undermine Iran. Iran almost went to war with the Taliban regime in the late 1990s after its forces killed about a dozen Iranian diplomats during the Taliban's campaign to seize the northwestern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which was held by Iranian-allied anti-Taliban forces. The formation of anti-Taliban militias would serve to keep similarly tense relations from recurring. Furthermore, the militias enhance Iran's bargaining power in negotiations over Afghanistan's future, as well as in the broader relationship between Iran and the United States.

Some of the senators accused Khan of playing into the hands of "neighboring countries" (obviously referring to Iran, given Khan's historical alignment with Tehran and his territory's location on the Afghan-Iranian border). The dispute among the various stakeholders in the Afghan state on this issue indicates early fracturing among the anti-Taliban factions, which will work in favor of the jihadist movement. For now though, Iran is signaling that any settlement for post-NATO Afghanistan cannot be achieved without its approval.

Pakistani Security Interests

Besides Iran, Pakistan is also moving to secure its national security interests in the aftermath of the NATO withdrawal. The Pakistanis have far more at stake than the Iranians and are scrambling to deal with the potential fallout from a Taliban comeback. There was a time when the Taliban were the main Pakistani proxy in Afghanistan and Islamabad saw their rise to power as a good thing.

But at that point the Taliban were strictly an Afghan phenomenon. The 9/11 attacks and the following decade forced a major shift. In the past few years, Pakistan has seen the rise of its own Taliban factions, and Islamabad is afraid those factions will receive a major boost from the rise of their Afghan counterparts.

This is why we see the Pakistani government rushing to forge ties with former opponents, such as the Karzai administration, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, India, Iran and, more recently, Russia. Pakistan's goal is to have a broad-based coalition government in power in Afghanistan that can limit the power of the Afghan Taliban. Given the difficulty of achieving and sustaining such an agreement, Pakistan is also working to deal with its own Taliban. 

One such effort involves the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the ethno-nationalist party that runs Pakistan's port city of Karachi (the country's largest city and its commercial hub) and urban areas in Sindh province. Days after the main Pakistani Taliban rebel group threatened to target the party (a key ally of the ruling coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement said that it will organize a national referendum on whether the nation wants a Pakistan based on the founder's vision of a secular progressive Muslim state or a Pakistan that reflects the Taliban's ideals.

This referendum is emblematic of the struggle the Pakistani state is engaged in for the soul of the country. The hope is to mobilize public opinion against religious extremism and militancy. The dilemma that Pakistan faces is how to deal with an inevitable Taliban political resurgence on its western flank while neutralizing the jihadist threat at home — since the latter is a natural outcome of the former.

For Pakistan, containing the Taliban on either side of the border will be very difficult. First, getting the Afghan Taliban to evolve into a political movement will be a challenge. Second, the Pakistani Taliban subscribe to the al Qaeda ideology, complicating Pakistan's dilemma. Additionally, the Taliban on both sides of the border are made up of many separate factions, and some overlap indeterminately with transnational jihadists.

Further compounding matters, the United States and Pakistan have widely differing opinions about how to manage the situation, and the relationship between the two countries has taken a major hit, at least in the last two years. Similarly, there are huge differences between the Karzai government and the government in Washington.

And now that factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are pursuing their own partisan initiatives, managing regional security after 2014 will become even more difficult. Some Afghan government officials appear to sincerely believe that an understanding with the Taliban is near, but the opacity shrouding the negotiating process and the various players involved makes it hard to tell. 

It is very likely that there will be a settlement, but it will fall apart relatively quickly, as was the case with the power-sharing accords signed after the toppling of Afghanistan's Marxist regime in 1992. Therefore, the efforts toward a settlement are fraught with complications, which raise the prospect of civil war in Afghanistan and a re-energized insurgency in Pakistan.

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