The conflict in Syria is drawing to a close, but Afghanistan may be about to break out in conflict with renewed vigor.
It is, according to numerous sources, that the ISIL fighters are moving to continue their war. Will events in Afghanistan develop according to the Syrian scenario? Or is there a chance of avoiding a new big war?
The deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan is evident from the reports of the US military. In 2015, Kabul and its Western allies controlled 72% of the administrative districts, and militants – about 7%. According to the latest data, in August 2017 the ratio of the territories under control was 57% compared to 13%, respectively.
Many rural areas are under the control of Taliban and ISIL militants, in various parts of the country. The zones of their influence are adjacent to the Afghan border, including the neighborhoods with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
The controversial control zone has grown by almost one and a half times in two years, in which both the power structures and militants are present in different proportions. In 2017, the area reached 30% of the territory of Afghanistan, population – 8.1 million people.
According to US data, about 3.7 million people live in areas that are administered by militants. In these places, the radicals establish their own laws, appoint shadow authorities, recruit militants and even collect taxes.
After the withdrawal of most of the US troops from the republic in 2014, militants began to raid regional centers. In 2015 and 2016, the Taliban twice occupied the third-largest Afghan city of Kunduz.
In 2015, the authorities had to lead long-running battles, use artillery and aviation to knock them out of the city quarters.
Terrorists attack district centers regularly, 5-10 times a year, and try to keep it up as long as possible. The record now is the case of the Gorak regional center in Kandahar (south of the country), which the militants held for almost a year, from November 2016 to October 2017.
Afghanistan, with the financial support of NATO, contains a huge number of security forces – more than 350,000 payroll staff, but today this is not enough to keep control over the situation.
In 2017, Kabul had to make a significant reduction in the network of roadblocks and police stations in rural areas, many peripheral roads are now under the control of the Taliban and ISIL.
In Farah and Nimroz (west and south-west of the country), militants create their own roadblocks and even some kind of analogue to “traffic police”.
In Herat (West), the Taliban already control more than 20% of local schools, and the province’s official education department said it was “happy” due to the work that militants are doing in education.
Authority in many areas is no longer in the hands of the government, because the police and military are no longer able to protect them. Militants regularly commit raids, resulting in heavy losses.
Recently, the militants created special assault units, “red detachments,” designed to quickly capture fortified objects.
These elite units are better armed, equipped with night vision devices, sometimes using captured American armored cars. Their training is led by terrorists who previously participated in military operations in Syria and Iraq.
The events of 2017 showed that the training of Afghan militants has improved significantly, where they can successfully attack even very “difficult” targets. In April, a small group of terrorists attacked the base of the 209th Afghan Army Corps (Balkh, north of the country) during Friday prayer, resulting in the deaths of, according to various sources, from 140 to 256 military personnel.
In October, during the attack on the base in Mayvanda (Helmand, south of the country), the militants managed not only to kill 43 servicemen, but also to seize the premises and gain a lot of trophies, including weapons and equipment.
The overall ratio of losses of militants and law enforcement officers has increased significantly. Due to technical superiority and better training, the losses of military used to be 1:2 or 1:3 militants, and in the past year they equaled (1: 1).
The army and the police, according to our calculations, lost about 7-9 thousand people killed, militants – 7,5-10 thousand (of which 1,6 thousand – ISIL militants, others – the Taliban).
It is evident that the Afghan army is giving way to militants. The situation is partially stabilized by the transfer of additional NATO troops to the country, the number of which has reached 14 thousand people.
However, if the process develops in the same way as before, then it will be possible to keep the situation under control only at the cost of an additional transfer of troops, up to 100-120 thousand people.
The revival of ISIL
The threat of ISIL coming to power in Afghanistan is growing. The number of militants of this terrorist organization in the region is, according to various estimates, from 3 to 10 thousand people.
They re-grouped after the arrival of several hundred “experts” who fled from the liberated areas of Syria and Iraq, many of whom were commanders and seek to create a “new army of the Caliphate.”
ISIL in Afghanistan has at least three camps for the training of militants. Each shift trains up to 100 volunteers of all ages. In the “classroom”, extremists work with machine guns, mortars, attacks on fortified positions and captured armored vehicles.
Initially, the Afghan ISIL was only a more radical version of the Taliban, in the ranks of which were mostly Afghans and Pakistanis. However, in 2016-2017, a lot of militants from Syria and Iraq, natives of Arab states, CIS countries and even the EU began to arrive in the country.
Their educational level is significantly higher than the average for Afghans. Among the older generation of Afghans, even illiteracy is common. In addition, the military training that they received during the wars in the Middle East makes them more dangerous than the “classic Taliban.”
ISIL have become one of the main problems for the Western Coalition. Their main stronghold of Nangarhar province (southeast) is now called “the most deadly zone in Afghanistan” by the official newspaper of the American army “Stars and Stripes”.
The US Army tried to destroy ISIL in the region by bombing them, using the GBU-43 (the famous “mother of all bombs”), but this did not achieve any success in Nangarhar.
The increased level of expertise of the militants who fought in Mosul and Aleppo – may be critical. Such detachments can resist the Afghan army, even with the support of the US Air Force. This will allow them to hold the captured territories longer, use captured weapons more efficiently, including machine guns and mortars.
Ultimately, the Afghan conflict can move from the guerrilla war stage to a full-scale armed conflict, and ISIL can again try to create its “quasi-state” in the war-torn territory.
The peace process
The Afghan army and NATO troops have not been able to regain control over the country for over 16 years, to the contrary, we see a steady deterioration of the situation.
Recently, the leading specialized publication of the United States, Foreign Affairs, recognized the situation as “dead-end” and proposed, as the only solution, negotiations with a part of the armed opposition.
The problem for the United States is that the negotiating format for solving the Afghan problem is “occupied” by Moscow. At the initiative of Russia, in late 2016, negotiations began with the participation of regional powers, including Afghanistan, China, India, Pakistan and Iran.
Moscow proceeds from the fact that since the problem does not have a military solution, one must rely on negotiations. The Afghan “Taliban” maintain high fighting efficiency thanks to sponsorship from Islamabad.
The agreement of regional players, especially India, which has great influence on Kabul and is a strategic rival of Pakistan, could make Afghanistan a “neutral territory” and exclude any support for militants by its closest neighbors.
Ultimately, this would allow the Taliban to sit down at the negotiating table and enter, perhaps, a coalition government.
Participants of the “Moscow format” have met twice, but both Kabul and New Delhi declared that dialogue with the armed opposition is inadmissible.
The American media in the region launched a real campaign against Moscow, accusing it of supporting the Taliban. It is not excluded that Kabul’s position on the issue of dialogue was also largely determined by pressure from Washington.
However, the sharp deterioration of the military situation during 2017, the strengthening of ISIL positions and the risk of a repeat “Iraq scenario” forced regional players to return to the idea of dialogue.
In December 2017, during the negotiations in Oslo, the Russian side managed to reach an agreement with the representatives of Afghanistan, the United States and the EU on relaunching the negotiation process. Kabul gave Moscow a “road map” they see fit for the peace process, which should be approved by Russia in mid February 2018.
If the negotiation process is launched in 2018, then there is hope to create a stable alliance of legal political elites of Afghanistan, and that part of the Taliban that does not support the idea of expansion under jihadist flags.
These joint forces could try, with the general support of all countries in the region, to eradicate ISIL and other radical groups.
Otherwise, there is a very real risk of deepening the military and political crisis in Afghanistan and drawing neighboring states into the conflict, including Russia and China.