Afghanistan’s Coming Civil War?
By Turan Tashkin
A year after the dust settled in Afghanistan, all that appears to be left are broken promises. The American government’s “over-the-horizon” capabilities against terrorism have not manifested as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and other groups continue to grow; additionally, the assurances of former Afghan leaders now ring hollow as most have fled westward. But most importantly, the Taliban’s veneer of modernity during the Doha Agreement has crumbled as Afghans have fallen into societal collapse and economic decline. Education is now reserved for boys, though unemployment and poverty do not discriminate in the new Afghanistan. As harsh as these conditions are, however, the Taliban’s polarizing attitude toward minority groups may be what leads to their downfall.
The plurality of Afghans and the vast majority of the Taliban are part of the Pashtun ethnic group based in Afghanistan’s eastern and southern provinces. The remainder of the nation is formed by linguistically and ethnically diverse peoples, most of whom face hostility from the new regime. With widespread discontent in the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek regions, the nation may be at risk of facing a new ethnically-charged civil war. The origin of this conflict would likely be in northern Afghanistan since sustained opposition in Afghanistan would require control over non-Pashtun areas furthest from the Taliban heartland near the Pakistani border.
In order to expand its influence in northern, central, and western Afghanistan, the Taliban had recruited from every ethnic-minority community, who would then be instrumental in the rapid fall of their respective regions in the summer of 2021. Thereafter, the Taliban’s facade of inclusivity faded as they consolidated their power. Public spaces were shut to women and the new government formed without inclusivity and from their own ranks exclusively. For example, the all-male interim cabinet of the Islamic Emirate included only two Tajiks and one Uzbek among thirty Pashtuns, with no Hazaras in the leadership (Ahmad). This imbalance has worsened as the Taliban have begun the “Pashtunization” of the government, society, and even their own movement. So far, two prominent non-Pashtun Taliban commanders have been forced out of power by Kabul, each of which the Taliban faced major backlashes for.
Throughout northern and central Afghanistan, the Taliban have also displaced various ethnic-minority areas and settled Pashtun nomads in their place. Land grabs from Hazaras in Daikundi and Uruzgan, Tajiks in Takhar, and Uzbeks in Jowzjan and Faryab are often identified as the main grievance of opposition groups and Taliban members. The tension between ethnic minorities and the Taliban has risen considerably, but to determine whether discontent will grow into a civil war, anti-Taliban groups must secure foreign support and funding.
Over the last forty years of war, every major Afghan actor has had a foreign backer, such as the Communists (backed by the Soviet Union), the Mujahadeen and the Northern Alliance (backed by the United States), and the Taliban (backed by Pakistan). Similarly, the success of any new uprising depends on the external support they can garner. The lack of easily extractable resources, besides the southern-grown opium, and the lack of industry require money and weapons to come internationally, which can be daunting.
Certain state actors will continue to cooperate with the Taliban. Pakistan has orchestrated the Taliban’s return and will remain their largest supporter; additionally, Iran’s relationship with the Taliban is similar to that of Pakistan’s, albeit subtler and more pragmatic. China will continue to bribe the government to prevent Uyghur resistance groups from seeking safe haven in Afghanistan while Central Asia and India are reluctant to involve themselves in internal Afghan politics again. The instability in Afghanistan has prevented the energy-rich countries of Central Asia from accessing the energy-hungry markets of South Asia. If the Taliban are able to provide security for this lucrative trade corridor, Central and South Asia are unlikely to threaten the Emirate’s existence.
Some state actors may be swayed otherwise, however, such as Turkey. The Turks were willing to work with the new government and initially attempted to act as a middleman between Afghanistan and the West. However, the crackdown on women’s rights and Uzbeks has not sat well with Turks due to the close relationship between them. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the most prominent Uzbek leader in Afghanistan, fled to Ankara as northern Afghanistan collapsed in 2021 and has recently begun organizing a comeback. In May 2022, Dostum led a meeting attended by other Northern Alliance leaders to gain support for a war against the Taliban, assuming with Turkey’s permission (Pandey), and in January 2023, for the first time, Turkey allowed Afghans to protest for greater women’s and minority rights in Afghanistan, notably led by Dostum’s daughter (Aamaj). The inhumane rule of the Taliban has caused Turkey to reconsider its Afghanistan policy and it appears the Uzbeks may be able to convince Turkey to fund their struggle, likely discreetly.
Similar appeals have been made to the United States and Europe as well. Ahmed Massoud, a leader of the Panjshir resistance, has been lobbying the United States for monetary and weaponry assistance (Markay). Massoud’s father was well-liked by the West due to his openness to modernize Afghanistan and Massoud hopes his father’s legacy will garner support for his movement. Their active guerilla campaign in northeastern Afghanistan has not had much success yet because, lacking funding, Massoud’s Tajik militias have been unable to hold areas they assume control over due to the continued Taliban counterattack. The United States and Europe may not have the appetite for another excursion into Afghanistan, but there is a possibility that they quietly support resistance fighters to salvage their legacy.
As for non-state actors, the transition from an insurgency into a government has disillusioned many of the Taliban’s former allies. The leading militant group, the ISKP, has worked to undermine the new government while they recruit from all ethnic groups and regions, especially in northern Afghanistan. So far, they have launched multiple rockets into Uzbekistan, which has damaged the Taliban’s credibility as a guarantor of security (Pannier). Their control over northern Afghanistan is viewed as precarious by Central Asian governments as the ISKP continues to expand its influence. Similarly, Iran fears a growing ISKP may spread into their border. They have taken measures to combat the ISKP in the past, not least of which was using other insurgents in Afghanistan against them (Aman). The wildcard that is the ISKP may seek to capitalize on any instability, spark a new insurgency, or affect the actions of Afghanistan’s neighbors significantly.
The growing anger in Afghanistan is a fundamental problem for the survival of the regime. National issues such as the economic crisis, destruction of women’s rights, bombing of Kabul and Hazara communities, murder of journalists and former government officials, and public floggings have traumatized Afghans throughout the nation while regional grievances continue to accumulate. Ethnic minorities are being eliminated within the Taliban’s own ranks as guerilla activities continue in northern Afghanistan. As pressure accumulates, the land displacements are likeliest to push the nation into civil war, as ethnic minorities, even within the Taliban, now fear their homelands will be usurped by Pashtun nomads. This fear has the potential to be a mobilizing force for the nation’s Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks.
Minority groups in Afghanistan do not harbor secessionist sentiments, but in times of conflict, they often organize within their ethnic group, as they had during the last three Afghan Civil Wars between 1989 and 2001. Uzbek and Tajik leaders such as Dostum and Massoud are orchestrating their return to Afghanistan, although they do not have the resources to do so as of yet. Their relationships with Turkey, the West, and even Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are vital, since Dostum has asked the Central Asian countries to hand over the Afghan military equipment that was transferred to them in 2021 (Sharma). If leaders like Dostum and Massoud secure external funding, they will have the confidence to attempt a larger intervention. Massoud is still organizing the ongoing Tajik guerilla movement in northeastern Afghanistan and Dostum recently announced his intention to enter Afghanistan and begin the struggle against Kabul once more.
The past century of Afghan history presents how general discontent can begin a new cycle of warfare and how cycles of violence start with financial, therefore foreign, support. In October 2001, the forces of Dostum and various Tajik and Hazara leaders swiftly began the conquest of northern Afghanistan with the support of American weaponry, which led to the collapse of the first Taliban government in the span of two months. This contrasts starkly with the fact that the Taliban had controlled almost all of Afghanistan in September 2001. Foreign financial support has the ability to change Afghan politics very quickly, especially with a regime as unpopular as the Taliban.
It is difficult to predict whether a civil war will happen or not, but it is possible to see the signs of its making, as there have been comparable events in Afghan history. As internal conditions increasingly favor civil war, it is important to look closer at the actions of actors such as Turkey, the United States, Uzbekistan, and the ISKP. Once Afghans refuse to further tolerate the Taliban regime, there will be those who capitalize on it, inside and outside of Afghanistan.
Turan Tashkin is a junior at Tufts University studying International Relations.
Image: The Blue Mosque at Mazar-i Sharif, Afghanistan
Image Courtesy: Peretz Partensky at Flickr
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