Features | Politics | South Asia

Afghanistan’s Turbulent Decade

From 2010 to 2020, the Taliban insurgency picked up steam while Afghanistan’s institutional dysfunction deepened.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad
Afghanistan’s Turbulent Decade
Credit: NSOCC-A photo by Robert Ditchey

In November 2010, Afghan and U.S. officials were increasingly hopeful about ending the insurgency in Afghanistan through negotiations with the second-in-command of the Taliban group: Mullah Akhtar Mansour. NATO forces escorted Mansour to the Afghan presidential palace and even paid him for his participation. That effort was part of a larger policy change to end the insurgency through a peace settlement.

The peace talks were going smoothly except for one thing: the man in the meetings was not Mullah Akhtar Mansour. During one of the talks, an Afghan official who had met Mansour before did not recognize the man sitting at the table. The Washington Post later reported the man claiming to be Mansour was a “lowly shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta.”

The decade was not off to an auspicious start in Afghanistan.

Over the course of the next 10 years, during which the real Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. airstrike, the peace talks and, simultaneously, the fighting gained momentum after the United States entered direct talks with the Taliban in July 2018 in Doha, Qatar. Recently, the Taliban announced a reduction of violence as a part of their deal with the United States, a deal under which the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a launchpad for attacks against the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. agrees to withdraw its forces according to a timeline, and both sides pledge that intra-Afghan dialogue will begin.

“The most important part of the Doha agreement from the point of view of U.S. national interest is the Taliban commitment against sanctuaries in Afghanistan,” said Dr. Barnett Rubin, who served as senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. Department of State from 2009-2013. “Sanctuaries in Afghanistan are the responsibility of Afghans, especially the state.”

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The peace talks have once again raised the hope of ending the 19-year long insurgency, which has had immense costs and consequences. In the 2010s, the Afghan government suffered a political crisis over a disputed election and lost a record number of soldiers to the war while the Taliban suffered political divisions even as they continued waging insurgency across the country.

“Despite some lackluster attempts to kick start a credible peace process over the past decade, lack of political will on the main sides was the key obstacle,” said Omar Samad, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Each party was waiting for the most opportune moment.”

The death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was the beginning of both serious talks with the Taliban and U.S. troop withdrawal from the country. After peaking at 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the United States withdrew combat troops from the country and handed over security responsibilities to the Afghan security forces in 2014, which was followed by heavy causalities. From 2014 to 2018, 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in combat with the Taliban across the country.

“[Afghan] forces are strung out across thousands of checkpoints, many of which are poorly placed, poorly constructed, and not within range of a response force if they attacked,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Special Operations Program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. “The Afghan army has been steadily shrinking in size since 2015, which means the government has had a declining of manpower to fight the Taliban and to hold territory.”

The Taliban group gained more territory from 2010 to 2020 than in the first decade of their insurgency. The Taliban have continued expanding their controls over areas in the country. As of January 2019, the New York Times, citing a U.S. government estimate, reported that “only 53.8 percent of districts were ‘controlled or influenced’ by the government, while 12.3 percent of the districts were under insurgent control or influence and 33.9 percent of districts were contested.” About 15 million Afghans, which are half of the population, live in areas that are either controlled by Taliban or where the Taliban are present and frequently carry out attacks.

Following the death of Mullah Omar in 2013, which was only confirmed in July 2015, the Taliban experienced a political division. In appointing someone to succeed Mullah Omar as leader, the Taliban had to worry about whether the leader would have enough support to keep the insurgency from splitting, according to experts. Mullah Akhtar Mansour took over the job, but many local commanders of the Taliban disagreed and splinted from the group. Mainly in the south and west of the country, Taliban fighters and commanders gathered to appoint Mullah Rasool their leader.

Mansour was later killed in a U.S. air strike in 2016 when he was crossing from Iran to Pakistani Balochistan. Hibatullah Akhundzada became the new leader of the bulk of the Taliban, and it was under his control that the group entered direct talks with the United States.

On the other hand, the Afghan government went through its first transition of power in the last hundred years without bloodshed even while weathering an election crisis over disputed results. In 2014, the transition from President Hamid Karzai to a new president had been stalled until U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal, under which Ashraf Ghani became president and created the chief executive position for rival presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

Ghani and Abdullah then ran the country together, often pushing divided agendas and policies. The division was a partial reason that Afghanistan’s parliamentary election was delayed for three years, during which time MPs worked under a special decree from Ghani. When Afghanistan finally held the election in 2018, it was marred with accusations of fraud and mismanagement.

“Afghanistan, unfortunately, has established critical institutions that are based on extremely weak democratic foundations,” said Thomas Johnson, director of National Security Affairs at Naval Postgraduate School in California. “The most recent legislative election was duplicitous and unrepresentative. Assessing the voting results in Kabul, the largest and most important province, the leading ‘vote getter’ got a mere 2.0 percent of the vote.”

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Afghanistan’s institutional issues go beyond the election. “Many questions involving the legal roles of Islamic and secular laws have not been firmly codified. Indeed, much of the judicial system is still based on rules and regulations established under King Zahir Shah’s reign [who ruled from 1933 to 1973],” said Johnson, adding that in many rural areas there “exists no formal, operable justice system.”

Patricia Gossman, Associate Director of Asia for Human Rights Watch, wrote that “powerful people and other abusers enjoy complete impunity from prosecution.”

Karemuddin Karim, president of the Afghan Football Federation, was accused of sexual assault by female football players. The country’s attorney general issued a warrant for Karim’s arrest in June 2019, but the arrest has yet to be carried out. Lkewise, Vice President General Rashid Dostum was accused of sexual assault by his former aides but his case has turned into a political football. Dostum was sent into exile in May 2017 but returned home in July 2018 without facing prosecution after people launched heavy protests in his support in northern Afghanistan.

With these same dysfunctional institutions, the Afghan government might soon enter talks with the Taliban, a process that poses great difficulties and demands national conversations over the future of the existing institutions. The bigger challenge lies in the question of whether Afghanistan in the next decade will favor liberal laws or sharia law.

“We need to work with what we have at this stage and make sure that a roadmap has buy-in, is realistic, inclusive and aims to safeguard security, sovereignty, political stability, and democratic rights,” said Samad of the Atlantic Council.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. His work has appeared in The Diplomat Magazine, South China Morning Post, Times of Israel, and many more.