Conflict Will Follow Taliban's Fall
bron stratfor

9 oktober 2001


The United States has begun its military campaign in Afghanistan without first forging a post-Taliban regime. Although opposition forces will take advantage of U.S. air strikes to attempt to drive the Taliban from power, this will only usher in another round of fighting among the victors. Because the United States needs a friendly and stable regime in Kabul to facilitate its primary mission of rooting out Osama bin Laden and his Afghan Arabs, it will find itself drawn into an attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan. This is an intractable problem that could draw the United States into a lengthy, costly and ultimately doomed engagement in Afghanistan at the expense of its primary mission.


The United States on Oct. 7 began an active military campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The move was premature -- driven by the approach of Ramadan and winter -- and the United States had not yet locked down political support or deployed the forces necessary for sustained combat. But Washington could not afford to wait until next spring to begin operations.

As the first round of cruise missiles slammed into targets in Kandahar, the United States and Pakistan had yet to settle on a successor regime to the Taliban. The deep fractures remaining among the Afghan factions opposing the Taliban, as well as competition between the countries that sponsor them, will return to haunt the United States as it attempts to achieve its military goals in Afghanistan, and later as it attempts to disengage from that conflict.

Reports from Afghanistan indicate that opposition forces already are capitalizing on the U.S. strikes. Within an hour after the first air strikes, Northern Alliance troops based at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, began Katyusha rocket attacks against Taliban positions in the surrounding mountains. Northern Alliance officials and spokesmen in Tajikistan told reporters that they had received forewarning of the U.S. strikes and are acting in close coordination with the United States. Rahimullah, an official in the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, said the Northern Alliance may coordinate with U.S. air strikes to attempt to move into Kabul, the Associated Press reported.

Other Afghans are apparently rebelling against the Taliban as well. Several local commanders have reportedly defected from the Taliban. And according to the Iranian news agency IRNA, fighting has erupted between residents of the western border town of Ziranj and Taliban forces in the wake of the U.S. strikes.

Although there may be signs of promise for the U.S. effort to topple the Taliban, there is little to suggest that a viable plan is in place to replace the regime. The United States and Pakistan remain divided over the preferred composition of a post-Taliban regime, Russia and Iran have their own ideas and the various Afghan factions are not necessarily inclined to cooperate with any externally imposed scheme.

The Taliban could be driven from power, but that will only mark the beginning of U.S. problems in Afghanistan. If the United States is to achieve its minimum stated goal of purging radical militants from Afghanistan, it will have to work with a post-Taliban regime. To do so, Washington will likely get dragged into trying to forge a stable Afghan government. Given the factors standing in the way of that mission, the United States may find itself bogged down in nation-building instead of militant-hunting.


Geography is perhaps the main factor standing in the way of a unified Afghanistan. The country is nearly bisected by the Hindu Kush mountain range, running southwest to northeast through its center. Lowlands surround the mountains in an arc. Military resistance has historically been strong in the mountains, making it extremely difficult to link the northern and southern halves of Afghanistan. Compounding the problem, Afghanistan's generally poor infrastructure diminishes to almost nothing in the mountains, which are largely inaccessible to motorized vehicles.

When the Taliban first entered Afghanistan, they pressed north from Kandahar to Kabul, where their advance was balked north of the capital. There, the eastern plains taper to a mountain-ringed cul de sac. The valuable Bagram air base is located on the plain north of Kabul, and north of that is the mouth of the Salang Tunnel -- the main pass from Kabul to northern Afghanistan.

This is a perennial killing zone, where Tajik forces emerge from the Panjshir Valley to the northeast, Hazaras occupy the mountains to the northwest and Pushtuns press north from Kabul. Unable to continue north from Kabul, the Taliban then swept southwest, skirting the mountains to take Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif before arriving north of Kabul.

Afghanistan is also landlocked, rendering any government and any opposition dependent on one or more of the six neighboring states for trade and transit. Afghanistan's borders are generally porous, making smuggling easy for any aspiring opposition force.

Finally, Afghanistan is geographically significant in the strategic calculations of its neighboring states. It is a crossroads for legal and illegal trade from Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. It is also a buffer between these regions. Afghanistan's strategic value has enticed foreign powers to meddle in it for centuries.

Ethnic Competition

Ethnic divisions run a close second among factors keeping Afghanistan divided. Afghanistan is home to several major ethnic groups, the most prominent of which are the Pushtuns, who make up 38 percent of the population. The Pushtuns are divided into two main branches: the Durrani and the Ghilzai. Tajiks make up 25 percent of the Afghan population, while the Hazara comprise 19 percent. Uzbeks are the final major ethnic group in Afghanistan, at 6 percent, while the remaining 12 percent of the population are drawn from a host of tribal and ethnic groups -- including the Aimaks, Baloch and Turkmen.

Language and religion divide Afghans as well. Nearly all Afghans are Muslim, though 84 percent are Sunni and 15 percent -- primarily the Hazara -- are Shiite. Language reflects the geographic and ethnic divisions of the country. Some 35 percent speak Pushtu, 50 percent speak Dari -- an Afghan variant of Persian -- and 11 percent speak Turkik languages, primarily Uzbek or Turkmen. Thirty minor languages are spoken in Afghanistan.

Though there is some distribution across Afghanistan, the major ethnic groups are concentrated in geographically distinct regions of the country. The Pushtuns occupy the southern plains, from around Herat in the west through Kandahar to Kabul. Within that territory, the Ghilzai Pushtuns are concentrated in the eastern provinces, near Kabul and along the Pakistani border.

The Tajiks are concentrated in the northeast, from Kabul to around Feizabad and into the Pamir Mountains, with smaller concentrations around Herat and scattered in the southwest. The Hazara live primarily in the Hindu Kush, centered around Bamiyan. The Uzbeks are concentrated in the north, around Mazar-e-Sharif, Baghlan and Kunduz, and the Turkmen occupy the strip along the border with Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan's politico-military factions also are formed around ethnic and geographic lines. Until his assassination in early September, Ahmad Shah Massoud led the Tajik armies from his base in the Panjshir Valley. Gen. Rashid Dostum leads a predominantly Uzbek army. The Hizb e Wahadat army represents the Hazaras.

The Taliban members are, for the most part, Durrani Pushtun, though they have been reaching out recently to the Ghilzai Pushtun in hopes of precluding the rise of opposition in areas under their control. Pakistani daily The News quoted Taliban minister Rahmatullah Wahidyar recently as saying the Taliban regime was ready to share power with tribal leaders in the eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.

Foreign Intervention

Competition for control of Afghanistan among neighboring and colonial powers has been heated for centuries. Arabs, Persians, Mongols and Greeks invaded Afghanistan. The Great Game pitted the United Kingdom against imperial Russia for control of Afghanistan's trade and transit routes. The Soviet Union tried to secure Afghanistan as a base within reach of the Straits of Hormuz. And since shortly after the end of the Cold War, Pakistan has nurtured the Taliban as a proxy for control of access to Central Asia.

This struggle for control is only heightened by the potential collapse of the Taliban, and this is reflected in deep disagreements between the United States, Pakistan, Iran and Russia over the eventual composition of a successor regime.

The United States initially sought to draw on the combat potential of the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban, while building a post-Taliban government around exiled King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The idea was that Zahir Shah, a Durrani Pushtun, could bring together the Pushtuns of the south and the primarily Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek Northern Alliance.

The Northern Alliance was not amused with this arrangement and has refused to cut a power-sharing deal with the king. Not only was the burden of fighting put on its forces, with the benefits of rule falling to a Pushtun, but Zahir Shah is no even-handed Pushtun moderate. He has been a vocal proponent of a greater Pushtun nation, a stance that has alienated even the Pakistani government.

The Durrani Pushtuns ruled Afghanistan from the late 1700s to the early 1970s, and the Taliban nearly succeeded in resuming that reign. The Northern Alliance rejected the Taliban's efforts to create a Pushtun-dominated state almost more than it rejected the Taliban's religious extremism. For them, Zahir Shah is little better.

Instead, the Northern Alliance is moving swiftly to take advantage of the U.S. air strikes, seize Kabul and present their government as a fait accompli. After all, the Northern Alliance includes the exiled government of President Burhanuddin Rabanni, which the United Nations continues to recognize as legitimate.

Pakistan, eager to maintain its grip on Afghanistan, initially proposed a plot for a coup by former foreign minister Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund against Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, according to a Tehran-datelined article in The Guardian. The idea was allegedly to put a moderate faction of the Taliban in control and thus maintain Pakistani influence over the Afghan government. However, Washington has made it clear that it will not tolerate any form of Taliban government. Pakistan's leadership has acknowledged this and is looking for a substitute.

Pakistan is deeply concerned about the potential for the Northern Alliance to seize power and has warned the opposition against such a move. But it is not comfortable with Zahir Shah in complete control of Afghanistan, either. Islamabad has now proposed supporting Syed Ahmed Gialani, former advisor to Zahir Shah, to control the king and the alliance around him. Gialani organized a meeting of Afghan exiles in Peshawar to build support for this plan.

Russia and Iran are not absent from the current struggle for control of post-Taliban Afghanistan, either. Russia wants to secure its control of Central Asia. To do so, it needs to keep fundamentalists out of the region. To this end, Moscow supports the Uzbek and Tajik Afghan armies. That is not to say Russia seeks a complete victory, as a small fundamentalist threat in Afghanistan justifies a Russian troop presence in Central Asia, and Russia prefers not to open Afghanistan as an export route for Central Asian resources.

Iran, like Russia, wants to protect its access to Central Asia by denying Pakistan a route through Afghanistan. Tehran supports the Shiite Hazara, and it appears to have already encouraged a split within the ranks of the Northern Alliance. Northern Alliance spokesmen in Tajikistan all claim to be coordinating actively with the United States, with an eye toward seizing Kabul. However, Touriali Ghiassi, the alliance representative in Mashhad, Iran, said U.S. attacks made the opposition forces' job easier, but that the Northern Alliance was waging its own campaign for northern and western Afghanistan.


The past 12 years of blood-letting in Afghanistan make forging a coherent and cohesive government even more difficult. The Taliban initially invaded Afghanistan in response to brutal warlordism among the factions that now make up the Northern Alliance. The shifting loyalties of opposition factions, encouraged by bribes and the tides of battle, greatly facilitated the Taliban's rapid advances and bloody setbacks.

Most of the factions in the Northern Alliance have fought against one another as often as they have fought side by side. The combat has generally been merciless, and it will be nigh impossible to forge trust between these factions in a future government. All factions look first and foremost to self-preservation and will be unwilling to risk disarming.

Treachery is prevalent even within the Northern Alliance armies. In one prominent example, Mazar-e-Sharif fell in 1997 when Dostum's right-hand man, Gen. Malik Pahlawan, defected with his forces to the Taliban. Six days later, and after handing over opposition commander Ismael Khan and 700 prisoners to the Taliban, Malik turned on his new allies. In two days of heavy fighting, Malik drove the Taliban out of Mazar-e-Sharif, killing 300 and capturing thousands. In the course of the subsequent offensive, Malik's troops and those of his Hazara allies massacred thousands of Taliban and buried them in mass graves.


The central government is, by the very nature of Afghanistan, weak. Besides the problems of geographic and ethnic fragmentation, the government in Kabul has to face the fact that there are no national-level structures to govern. Afghanistan is basically functional at village level. Its cities are rubble, it has no infrastructure to speak of and the economy is all but nonexistent. There is not much to the legitimate economy beyond subsistence farming and animal herding.

The three major sources of income and one potential source of income for any future Afghan regime are all major sources of corruption. These include the control of aid distribution, control of smuggling and control of narcotics cultivation, processing and export. Oil transit fees provide a potential, though unlikely, source of income as well.

All these sources of income are windfalls, requiring no investment or fiscal discipline. They require only collection and distribution of the wealth, something unlikely to be done in an even-handed or forward-looking manner.

Balance of Power

One last feature precluding the formation of a stable regime in Afghanistan is the country's precarious balance of power. Afghanistan is divided between several large ethnic groups -- each firmly rooted in a particular section of Afghanistan, and each with a sponsor in a neighboring state -- all ready to vie for power. Due to the country's isolation, poverty and rugged terrain, combat in Afghanistan is so low-grade, low-budget and low-tech that even a small influx of resources can shift the balance of power between these groups. This means that at any one time, with minimal effort, a group or its sponsor could torpedo any coalition.

By the same token, since disruption is cheap and the candidates for rebellion are plentiful, maintaining a strong central government in Afghanistan is staggeringly expensive.

Conclusion: Quagmire

In the end, overthrowing the Taliban is no panacea, even given the limited goal of eliminating Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan will be quickly divided between feuding factions, making it difficult to stage search-and-destroy missions for bin Laden and his estimated 10,000 Afghan Arabs. In order to forge the minimum stability necessary just to carry out the primary mission, the United States is likely to get bogged down in an exercise in nation-building.

Long occupation or operation of Afghanistan as a protectorate by the United Nations or some third power would be extremely costly, given the primordial state of the country's economy, infrastructure and politics. Logistics alone would be nightmarish, as Afghanistan is landlocked and the transport facilities available to anyone wishing to supply the country are crude.

Given the competing agendas of the various factions in Afghanistan, as well as of their external sponsors, an attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan would be more analogous to Somalia than to Bosnia.

Even if overthrown, the Taliban are guaranteed to fight on, as will other factions that are not satisfied with their piece of the post-Taliban pie. The United States could quickly find itself targeted by feuding post-Taliban factions.

As the United States begins the military campaign to destroy bin Laden, his supporters and his hosts, it may be taking the first step toward a protracted, costly and ultimately doomed engagement in Afghanistan at the expense of its primary mission. It is entering a quagmire.