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“The dam is about to break”: why 2016 could be a very bad year for Afghanistan

Afghan National Army soldiers.
Afghan National Army soldiers.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is part one of a three-part series on the war in Afghanistan. Part two, which will run on Tuesday, looks at the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan. Part three, to publish Wednesday, examines the role of Pakistan and other outside actors.

Things in Afghanistan are bad — bad enough that late last year, President Obama halted the long-awaited withdrawal of American troops from the country. A few months later, the Taliban overran the city of Kunduz, the first major urban center it controlled since the US invasion in 2001. The Taliban were quickly pushed out of the city, but the fact that they took it at all is a testament to how strong they've grown of late. We've also seen a worrying rise in ISIS activity there.

To a lot of Afghanistan watchers, these factors make it seem like things are about to hit the fan: that is, that 2016 is going to be an epically bad year. To get a better sense of why, I reached out to Jason Lyall, an expert on Afghanistan and insurgency at Yale University. Lyall painted a gloomy picture of a resurgent Taliban and a vulnerable Afghan government, one that's only likely to be reversed with a serious — and perhaps unthinkable — military reinvestment by the US and partners in the region.

What follows a transcript of our emailed correspondence, edited slightly for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: You tweeted something really ominous the other day: "I don't think we'll be able to ignore Afghanistan in 2016 like we have for the past few years. Just feels like the dam is about to break." What, exactly, did you mean by that? Is the Taliban that poised for big victories?

Jason Lyall: There's substantial evidence that the Taliban have grown stronger over the past several years. According to our data, the Taliban were able to launch offensives with 100 or more men in 41 districts in 2014. In 2015, that number rose to 65.

In 2015, the Taliban were able to launch and coordinate three major offensives in Kunduz, Faryab, and Helmand, each involving at least 1,000 men. The fact that the Taliban were able to seize and hold Kunduz City, a major urban center, for almost two weeks is alarming.

In addition, the UN has tracked the steady increase in Taliban control throughout Afghanistan; by mid-2015, at least half of Afghanistan's districts were judged under Taliban control or at significant risk.

Taken together, the Taliban have shown an impressive ability to coordinate multiple offensives, seize and hold territory, and inflict substantial losses on Afghan security forces. At the same time, the drawdown of US forces, along with a reluctance to use airpower, means that the forces arrayed against the Taliban are considerably weaker than in the past.

We shouldn't oversell the Taliban threat, however. The Taliban is experiencing factionalism at its top levels, and it has grown increasingly decentralized in recent years, making it more difficult for it to exercise authority over local commanders. That's why these recent offensives are so surprising: The Taliban, despite its own internal weaknesses, has still found a way to generate significant pressure on the Afghan government and forces.

ZB: How did they make such a comeback?

JL: I wouldn't necessarily call it a "comeback." The Taliban has proven to be an incredibly resilient organization that has slowly, patiently, extended its reach throughout Afghanistan. It has employed a mixture of persuasion and coercion among local populations while gradually shifting from hit-and-run tactics to more sustained direct engagements with Afghan security forces.

Again, the withdrawal of US and NATO forces beginning in 2011 — and especially the reduction of close air support sorties — has also allowed the Taliban to coordinate in larger groups and to undertake combat operations against isolated (and often dispirited) Afghan forces.

ZB: Why, after huge amounts of aid from the United States, is the Afghan government so weak?

JL: The current Afghan government is weak for at least three reasons.

First, because it exercises weak or contested control over so many areas, it lacks the ability to tax the population. As a result, its revenues can only cover a fraction of its needs, creating a snowball effect where the absence of services raises questions about its legitimacy.

Second, the current National Unity Government (NUG)'s legitimacy is also questioned by some of the population, in part because of its brokered backroom birth but also because it is currently beset by internal divisions and factions that are undermining its ability to coordinate coherent policies, including against the Taliban.

Third, I would argue that the current government is weak because of all the aid money spent by the United States and other donors. These funds were often mismanaged, contributed to corruption and violence, and led to unsustainable development practices that are now coming to haunt the Afghan government as aid money dries up.

ZB: We've heard a lot of rumblings about an ISIS presence in Afghanistan. How significant is its foothold there?

JL: ISIS certainly has a foothold in Afghanistan, though its presence is largely confined to several districts in three provinces (Nangarhar, Zabul, and Kunduz). Most estimates place ISIS strength at 1,000 to 2,000 fighters and camp followers at most.

We also have to be careful to note that "ISIS" in Afghanistan is really composed of disgruntled Taliban who were unhappy with the direction of the movement and who were seeking to "rebrand" their factions to gain momentum. These defections to ISIS only increased after the death of [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar was publicly announced in July 2015, as splinter groups broke away from the new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.

The Taliban have been actively fighting ISIS since about September, and have succeeded in driving them from several districts. There also seems to be little appetite among most Afghans for ISIS's brand of Wahhabism, which comes across as alien to both the Taliban's ideology of Sufism and Deobandism as well as Afghan traditions more generally. Add in the US policy of using drone strikes to target ISIS leaders, and it appears that ISIS is likely to remain a fringe player, at least for the time being.

ZB: You've said that peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are likely to fail. Why?

JL: I'm skeptical that the current round of negotiations now getting underway will yield a stable peace settlement. There are many unresolved questions surrounding Taliban motives and organization, for example. Why would the Taliban seek peace now when they appear to have all the battlefield momentum? How widespread is pro-peace sentiment among local commanders? Can Mansour enforce a peace deal, assuming he wants one, or will the trend toward Taliban fragmentation continue?

Questions surround Pakistan's motives, too, and whether it, too, is acting with one voice or if its strategy is hostage to competing interests in Islamabad. Why would it rein in the Taliban when it is moving closer to its objectives? Can Pakistan even exercise that level of control over the Taliban? Right now, there's so many basic questions about the identity of the relevant actors, their motives, and the nature of any acceptable peace to all sides that I'm not optimistic. But I hope I'm wrong.

ZB: If peace negotiations fail, as you expect, is there anything that could be done — either by actors inside Afghanistan or by the US — to turn it around?

JL: It would be possible to reverse Taliban momentum and push them to the negotiation table if there were coordinated action by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. If Afghanistan and Pakistan started using force jointly against the Taliban, and if the United States simultaneously stepped up airstrikes and drone strikes against holdout Taliban, then it might be possible to coerce the Taliban to the table.

These coordinated ground and air offensives might degrade Taliban capabilities enough that it begins to worry about its power struggle with ISIS. Fearing that ISIS might step into any emerging power vacuum, and concerned about further losses to its control and its cadres of fighters and supporters, the Taliban (or most of it) might sue for peace.

But there's a lot of "ifs" in this plan, and it isn't clear that Afghanistan and Pakistan can work together — or that Pakistan actually wants to make this work.