As the United States and other NATO countries begin to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan, Afghan and US policymakers alike fear a return to the carnage that characterized the five year civil war (1996-2001) between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. In that conflict, battles over large population centres and campaigns of ethnic cleansing killed thousands. To prevent a repeat of that disaster, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration are now seeking to negotiate a truce with the Taliban. But just how likely is such a peace deal to materialize – or to hold, if it does?
History is instructive in this regard. Most civil wars end with one side militarily defeating the other. For instance, the Russian Civil War (1917-23) ended with the Bolshevik regime suppressing the anti-communist insurgency against its rule. Similarly, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) ended when the last Republican forces surrendered to Francisco Franco’s Nationalists.
Those rare civil wars that end peacefully through negotiations usually do so when the countries supporting the combatants conclude that the conflict has become a waste of resources. Deprived of their wellspring of support and often pressured by their erstwhile patrons, the combatants are then compelled to end hostilities.
Two examples of this phenomenon include the 1992 ‘Rome General Peace Accords’ that ended the Mozambican Civil War (1977-92) and the 1997 ‘General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord in Tajikistan’ that ended the 1992-97 Tajik civil war. Mozambique’s civil war was a particularly bloody Cold War conflict between the Soviet-backed Mozambican government and the South African-backed Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO) – one that persisted despite years of military stalemate and hundreds of thousands of casualties. A partial ceasefire was agreed to only in December 1990, after a disintegrating USSR ceased subsidizing communist regimes throughout the world and South Africa – then transitioning to majority-rule – abandoned its policy of destabilizing neighbouring countries hostile to apartheid. A more formal peace deal followed in 1992.
Tajikistan’s civil war, by contrast, ended when the countries supporting the respective combatants faced a new common enemy: the Taliban. The Tajik civil war was primarily a struggle among Tajikistan’s regions over how to divide the country’s economic pie. The government represented the interests of Tajiks from around Leninabad and Kulyab, while the various insurgent groups, which united to form the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), represented the interests of those from Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan. The Russian and Uzbek governments patronized the Tajik government and even intervened militarily, fearing that the many Islamists fighting for the UTO could threaten their own countries. Iran and its Afghan allies armed the UTO and offered it sanctuary. However, the Taliban’s occupation of Kabul in 1996 scared all involved into forming a common alliance – and ending hostilities.
Today in Afghanistan, however, a repeat of either the Mozambican experience or the Tajik one is unlikely. In recent years, the Karzai government and its American patron have sought reconciliation talks with the Taliban, but demanded that it first disassociate itself from al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. The Taliban so far has rejected these conditions, without worrying that it might alienate its own sponsor, Pakistan, in the process. Indeed, since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has feared an Indian invasion and sought to acquire ‘strategic depth’ via a pliable Afghanistan. Many in the Pakistani military and intelligence service believe the Afghan Taliban to be the only group that will accommodate this need, and the Pakistani government has accordingly offered the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents sanctuary. It has even negotiated non-aggression pacts with groups engaged in attacks on Afghan and Coalition targets across the border. And, as long as Pakistan fears India and seeks strategic depth, Islamabad’s policy is unlikely to change.
Nor do the Afghan government’s US, Indian and Iranian patrons show any sign of changing course. As long as the Taliban shelters al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups committed to attacking America, the United States will consider the Taliban an enemy and will support the Afghan government’s war against it. India, likewise, can be expected to back Hamid Karzai’s government until the Taliban severs its alliance with Kashmiri militants. A Shiite Iran, for its part, has long grappled with the destabilizing effects of Sunni Taliban misrule in neighbouring Afghanistan, ranging from a flourishing drug trade to the targeting of co-religionists by the puritan movement.
This is where the situation remains. So long as Pakistan fears India, and the Americans, Indians and Iranians fear the Taliban, no party to this conflict will regard continuing the war to be a waste of resources. And, unlike with the Tajik civil war, no external enemy on the horizon is likely to draw the parties into a common alliance. Which means that Afghanistan’s bloody civil war is destined to grind on, despite the best efforts of the White House.
Micah Levinson is a junior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.