The conflict in Afghanistan is entering a new, even more chaotic chapter. On Monday, six U.S. service members were killed in an apparent suicide attack in Bagram province. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has a growing presence in the country. And a dangerous power struggle has emerged within the Taliban.
Early this month, rumors of the demise of the Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour sent shock waves through the region. Mansour was supposedly injured in a shooting between rival factions of Taliban at a meeting in Quetta, Pakistan, dampening the prospect of peace talks between the central government in Kabul and the Taliban.
A supposed audio message from Mansour was distributed days later, an attempt to allay concerns among Taliban supporters of Mansour. But the rumor of his death or injury continues to precipitate among key members of the Afghan government, including chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who on Dec. 7 reiterated that the Taliban leader was indeed injured in a shootout.
Whatever the truth, the Taliban is becoming more fractured, which could lead it to become more violent and unstable – right as the Obama administration is trying to adjust its course in the planned withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, stated before a Senate hearing in October that the United States needs a new plan for Afghanistan, and he stressed that the political and strategic dynamics within the country have changed within the last year, including the rise of ISIS and the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar that halted peace talks this summer. A recent U.S. government report found the security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated from June through November.
And things are likely to remain messy while competing factions of the Taliban continue fighting with one another over Omar’s rightful successor. It is believed that since the death of the reclusive leader, the Taliban has divided into three main factions among Mullah Mansour, the former deputy to Mullah Omar; Mullah Mohammad Rassoul Noorzai, a battlefield commander in Zabul province; and Maulavi Abdul Jalil, former deputy foreign minister of the Taliban.
Once hailed as the answer to Afghanistan’s divisive ethnic landscape and the chaotic period that proceeded the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban are no longer viewed as a monolithic entity capable of uniting Afghans under a religious identity. The discovery of Mullah Omar’s death in 2013, the mythologized Robin Hood of Afghanistan, ended the Taliban’s identity as Afghanistan’s unifying entity.
Fractured movements tend to prolong conflicts. This is evident with contemporary conflicts around the globe from Yemen, Syria and Libya. Competing interests and fights over financing and access to resources cause fractured groups to fight among one another, increasing paranoia and anxiety over the other groups’ motives and capabilities. Meanwhile, the groups continue fighting the government, a situation that’s become increasingly evident in Afghanistan.
Recent claims of clashes in Nangahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces between Mansour’s forces and Rassoul’s have reportedly resulted in the death of a prominent battlefield commander loyal to Rassoul, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah. Large numbers of villagers have fled from Herat province as internal fighting between commanders loyal to Rassoul and Mansour continues unabated.
The internal infighting, coupled with the central government’s desire to reach a peace settlement, will likely make competition between the Taliban factions more violent. Attempts to seize large population centers, such as the temporary fall of Kunduz, or daring attacks on major installations like the recent siege on Kandahar airfield, may become more frequent, as competing groups look to gain supporters and consolidate power before a possible peace settlement.
The White House is slowly adapting to these rapid changes in the region. With the visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, in October and November, the Obama administration underscored the importance of regional cooperation and the role Pakistan will play in creating peace in the region. For the upcoming fighting season, the U.S. government will need to maintain its steady assistance militarily to Afghan forces, while at the same time pressuring the Pakistani government to support reconciliation between moderate Taliban forces still connected to Islamabad and the Kabul-based government.
The implications for the Pentagon are far-reaching. Signs of increased Special Forces operations in southern Helmand province may indicate that the White House and Pentagon are willing to go beyond the stated mission of “train, advise and assist” to thwart Taliban advances. A loss of Helmand province would provide the Taliban with a strategic foothold in the south and access to opium for financing operations, and it would provide a strong bargaining chip for anti-government forces in any peace negotiations.
An increased combat role by U.S. forces may provide a well-needed morale boost to the fledgling Afghan security forces that witnessed record casualties this fighting season and buy time for the Afghan Air Force to rebuild and field its new close-air support platform, the A-29 Super Turcano, this coming spring. A stronger and more active combat role in Afghanistan could persuade potential Taliban defectors and splinter groups to support the central government.
A stronger and more active combat role in Afghanistan could convince potential Taliban defectors and splinter groups to support the central government. But at least as important is understanding who is fighting whom within the Taliban. Only when those conflicts subside will there be some semblance of peace in the region.
The Washington Post
Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy specializing in Central and Southwest Asia. He served 10 years as a Signals Intelligence Analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan.