As the Iraq crisis deepens, some commentators have taken to inaccurately comparing it to the situation in Afghanistan. Predictions have been made that, a few years after the withdrawal of international forces, Afghan security forces would crumble in the face of the insurgency and the Taliban would retake most of the southern and eastern provinces.
Then supposedly, the Pakistani Taliban would merge with the Afghan Taliban and together would announce an Islamic State under the leadership of the already declared commander of the faithful, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Subsequently, al-Qaeda and other global jihadist organisations would come back to their old bases in Afghanistan.
Such predictions are cited by some as a warning to the US against withdrawing from Afghanistan, in light of US President Barack Obama’s plans to pull US troops out by the end of 2016.
There are problems, however, with both the comparison and the implied solution – i.e. US troops staying in Afghanistan. Indeed, conditions in the two countries bear some similarities. There are insurgencies in both countries rising up against foreign intervention and an unpopular government. Another is a political divide along ethnic or sectarian lines that has set the ground for the insurgency to attract those excluded from the political process. The third similarity is geopolitics: Both countries are surrounded by neighbours and regional actors who support one side or another in the conflict.
However, there are underlying factors that make the situations in the two countries significantly different and an Iraqi-style scenario in Afghanistan unlikely.
Definable historical patterns
The first factor is history. Iraq’s current conflict is too recent to be broken into definable historical patterns. That means there is a risk that the situation might evolve into more chaos. By contrast, the current conflict in Afghanistan is now well into its fourth decade and it can be divided into distinct periods and fairly definable patterns. Earlier periods saw wild, comprehensive, high-intensity conflict. Now it is much more geographically confined, and far lower in intensity.
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Starting with the Saur Revolution that brought a communist cabal to power, ushered in the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s and later provoked a popular jihad against the invaders in the 1980s, to the bitter infighting among the mujahideen or fighters in the 1990s, through the Taliban’s civil war to the current insurgency, the conflict has gradually become less lethal.
For example, more than 25,000 people were reportedly killed in a single event in the Herat uprising in 1979. For the past 13 years, the conflict has killed between 50,000 and 60,000 people. By contrast, Iraq’s death toll has reached well over 200,000 people since the US invasion in 2003, according to the Costs of War project.
From an Afghan point of view, Iraq now appears to be at the same point as when the Taliban – like the Islamic State today in Iraq – rose against the corrupt and powerless government of the mujahideen whose warlords and commanders had regularly oppressed the population.
Afghanistan will not be taken over by the Taliban again, as the current situation in the country is very different from the mujahideen’s rule in the 1990s. In this sense, if the Taliban try an offensive, the general Afghan population will not see them as saviours from chaos once again and will not concede to their rule. In fact, most indicators point in the other direction. Afghanistan has seen a significant socio-economic and political transformation since the 1990s: an improved economy, growing urbanisation, improved governance, and greater access to health care, schools and universities for the general population.
The second factor making Afghanistan different from Iraq is the fault lines of the conflict. In Iraq, sectarianism is probably the key driver of conflict. The rampant pro-Shia chauvinism of the Baghdad government has provoked anti-government sentiment within the Sunni population, which has created a supportive environment for militant groups, such as the recently renamed Islamic State.
Afghanistan, by contrast, has no such politically relevant sectarian divide that could be exploited by Sunni extremists. Instead, Afghanistan is susceptible to ethnic divisions, but these are much less potent than Iraq’s sectarianism.
In Iraq, the Islamic State group is driven by a deeply sectarian ideology – with a regional slant – that makes it far more violent; it also sees itself as part of a broader, ideological struggle, not confined to Iraqi or Syrian borders. The Taliban, on other hand, although Sunni, strive to shun sectarian and ethnic overtones from their discourse, promoting a more political and patriotic narrative for the cause. When there were sectarian attacks in late 2011 – the twin bombing of Ashura commemorations in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, which killed about 60 people, the Taliban swiftly condemned it.
Because of the absence of the sectarian factor, there is a potential for the Taliban’s political grievances to be addressed far more easily through political accommodation as opposed to the agenda of the Islamic State group.
The third factor is geopolitics. Like Iraq, Afghanistan is flanked by largely unhelpful neighbours and regional actors vying for a stake in its affairs. Iraq, however, lies exactly in the heart of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for regional influence exacerbated by sectarian tendencies in both nations. Afghanistan, too, is seen as another theatre of rivalry between the two, but not as relevant or important to either as Iraq is.
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It seems that the more chaotic and internationally unmonitored a conflict becomes, the more regional actors get a chance to get involved. There is no indication of a waning in Saudi or Iranian regional ambitions in the wars in Syria and Iraq and there is no international action that might stop them. This heated, open regional struggle finds good proxies in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, one could argue that it is the wider Pakistan-Indian conflict – rather than, say Pakistan and Iran – that has helped drive the war, although it is only Pakistan which provides safe haven and support to the Taliban.
The conflict in Afghanistan has become much more restrained recently, which does not allow much room for outside intervention. Furthermore, the strong disinclination of both the government in Kabul and of the Taliban to be seen as puppets of regional actors keeps in check any ambitions regional players might have. Apart from these internal dynamics, the whole region, including Pakistan, is fearful of destabilising the country again. Particularly, bringing back Taliban rule benefits no country in the region.
Geography has one more consequence. Unlike Iraq, which enjoys open routes for foreign militants from the region, especially from Syria, to cross into the country, accessibility for foreign militants who want to enter Afghanistan is limited. The lack of easy routes into Afghanistan, combined with the Taliban keeping a fairly effective monopoly over the insurgency, makes it difficult for a surge of foreign fighters in Afghanistan taking over and controlling the militant group. With lesser leverage for the regional players, and the difficulty of foreign militants crossing into Afghanistan, the conflict should continue to remain a political struggle with reasonably defined goals, one where the insurgents could be accommodated through a political settlement – should there be genuine willingness on both sides.
A potential surge of extremists bent on taking large swathes of Afghanistan and plunging the country into chaos looks unlikely. Therefore Afghanistan is not comparable with Iraq. This would be the case even if there were no consensus government formed in Kabul in the aftermath of the presidential elections. A prolonged conflict as a result of such a scenario will still remain limited in its impact and lethality, and confined within a political framework. Even then, a Taliban takeover would be impossible.
Borhan Osman is a researcher and analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
Follow him on Twitter: @Borhan