As US Troops Depart, Is Afghanistan on the Brink of Civil War?

By Joseph Eyre

In March, The International delved into the then-imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan by the US and its allies. We examined the tremendous costs of the conflict so far and the modest but hard-won gains achieved across two decades of continuous war. Though fraught with risk and uncertainty, there was a glimmer of hope that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s focus on creating strong and well-equipped domestic security forces would pay dividends in maintaining a degree of peace and preventing a return to power by the Taliban. However this, along with our own assessment earlier this year, is already beginning to look overly-optimistic as the Taliban regroups, violence surges and Afghan security forces suffer severe defeats and “shockingly high” casualties.

Only weeks after the official withdrawal date reports and footage of Taliban fighters occupying deserted military bases, with Afghan Security forces surrendering in droves, began emerging. The scenes are eerily reminiscent of those in Iraq in 2014 when, after another US withdrawal, ISIS captured bases and towns abandoned by fleeing security forces. In the last fortnight alone, there have been reports that the Taliban have taken military installations in the Sar-e Pol and Zabul provinces, and have captured the main border crossing with neighbouring Tajikistan. These military bases are often flush with high-quality American-made and funded equipment, and their capture only serves to strengthen the Taliban. 

Fighting is also underway in provincial capital Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth largest city, and the official Taliban spokesperson has claimed that they are in control of the town of Balkh. The town is only 20km away from Mazar-I-Sharif, a strategically important city in the north of the country, and Afghanistan’s third largest. It was the site of several battles and massacres involving the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in the late 1990’s and so its capture would be highly symbolic. Given its history, it is unsurprising that there are reports of civilians forming militias led by former Mujahideen commanders in order to defend the city and other areas, claiming a strength of “thousands.”

These Taliban gains have come at considerable cost to the Afghan security forces. An anonymous senior government official has painted a grim picture, alleging 157 Aghan security forces casualties in a single 24 hour period on the 7th June, and stating that fighting is now occurring in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. These casualties and losses are likely to remain high as the Taliban grows in strength and ambition.

Worse-still, the main advantage of the Afghan security forces until recently was their backing by US airpower. However on June 14th, in an interview with VOA, US CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie confirmed that the US will refrain from any airstrikes in Afghanistan for reasons other than preventing attacks on the “homeland of the United States [or] one of our allies and partners.” This appears to refute earlier speculation that the US would intervene to prevent the fall of major cities, such as the capital Kabul, to the Taliban.

A Perfect Storm

And it’s not just American military might that the Afghan military relied on. Estimates put the number of civilian contractors in the country at over 18,000, and these have been responsible for equipment maintenance, supply chain management and military training. Without them, the Afghan security forces are unlikely to operate anywhere near their current effectiveness. John Sopko, the inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, has stated that as of December 2020, the Afghan National Army was completing under 20% of its own maintenance work, which is well under the 80% target.

The withdrawal of all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, including contractors, was also part of the agreement between the US and Taliban negotiated by the Trump administration. So without a military presence to protect them, and an agreement stipulating their withdrawal, their position is untenable and the departure of contractors will inevitably follow that of the military. This will likely mean that the ANA’s access to equipment (such as helicopters for transport and planes for airstrikes) will be massively diminished, along with their training and logistics capabilities. The US’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction even believes that the withdrawal of contractors could be more devastating than the withdrawal of troops.

US allies had also previously operated in Afghanistan with a similar heavy reliance on US air support and logistics, but in the absence of such support and themselves weary after 20 years of continuous involvement in the country, they too are completing their withdrawals in the coming weeks. Italy’s last remaining troops returned home last week, with Germany’s and the UK’s soon to follow.

Evidently, the withdrawal from Afghanistan by the US and its allies has so far gone worse than many expected and the Taliban have wasted no time in beginning their attempt at regaining power. They have already captured a string of strategically important sites and inflicted substantial casualties on the Afghan security forces (there is a strong possibility that Mazar-I-Sharif will be captured by the Taliban in the coming days or weeks) and there is no indication that their campaign will stop there. The Afghan security forces, already struggling to contain the Taliban, will be greatly diminished with the loss of US and allied military and logistical support. Without robust government support, civilian militias are also now forming to defend themselves and their cities, and the result will be chaotic.

Where Next?

The country is facing a continuation and escalation of the civil war and violence that have plagued it for decades, and despite the impending catastrophe, the US is washing its hands of the conflict of 20 years as it belatedly pivots to the Asia-Pacific. Gen Austin S Miller, head of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, has candidly admitted that “a civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now,” but this has done nothing to stem the flow of NATO personnel out of the country. With the US and its allies looking elsewhere, China is now seeking to expand its Belt and Road infrastructure project into the country and a contingent of peacekeeping troops to secure China’s “safety and interests” has also been suggested. 

Afghanistan’s long-held reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’ may yet continue.

This report was compiled by Joseph Eyre. You can find Joseph on Twitter here.