Beset by the resurgent Taliban and internal political rifts, the NUG is struggling to survive.
Afghanistan has seen an alarming rise in insecurity in 2017 despite efforts of Afghan security forces to contain the insurgency. In the 2017 budget, 34 percent has been allocated for security. Citing the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)’s first 2017 quarterly report, Task and Purpose reported that in the first six weeks of 2017, 807 Afghan soldiers were killed. During 2017, two of the six military corps have been attacked by the Taliban; in April, Taliban attacked the 209th Shaheen Corps in Balkh Province in which over 150 soldiers were killed and hundreds injured. Recently, they attacked the 205th Atal Corps in southern Kandahar Province, leaving at least 18 servicemen dead and many more injured.
In addition, Kabul has seen several devastating attacks since last spring. Close to a dozen districts in various strategic locations around the country have fallen to the Taliban in 2017. In March, Sangin district in Helmand fell to the Taliban and they maintain a heavy presence there. In a report on August 3, citing a local source, The Guardian reported that Taliban run over 2000 madrassas in the district. Also in March, Tala Wa Barfak district in Baghlan fell to the Taliban. In May the threat of Taliban was looming over Kunduz, a province that had fallen twice to the Taliban in the past. After fierce battles, government forces lost to the Taliban and Qala-e Zal fell to the Taliban. The Taliban still maintain a heavy presence in the key northern province. Darzab district of Faryab fell in late June, and in July, the Kohistan district of Faryab, Taiwara district of Ghor and Janikhail district of Paktia fell. Janikhail which is the stronghold of Haqqani Network fell for the second time in August. Several villages in Tagab district of Badakhshan fell to the Taliban in the past few months as well.
The patterns of attacks and capturing of districts reveal that the Taliban are trying to send a strong message that they are more powerful than ever and that any part of the country is in their reach. On August 7, the Kabul-based newspaper Etilaat Roz published a report claiming that in 31 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, the government fights the Taliban either seriously or sporadically. The same report said that in 16 provinces there is ongoing war, eight district capitals are under Taliban control and 12 provinces are under Taliban threats.
In a recent joint attack by the Taliban and ISIS-K in Mirza Olang village, in the Sayyad district of Sar-e Pol province, the militants shot and beheaded 50 to 60 civilians including women and children after preventing them from escaping the area. Following the massacre, they took 150 families as hostages. Over 471 families have been displaced as a result. The survivors were so shocked and traumatized that several of them couldn’t even speak to the reporters according to a BBC Persian report.
Both the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the Afghan Supreme Court have called the act a war crime and a crime against humanity. Many activists and civil society activists have stated that the government is an accomplice in the massacre for not responding to the constant demand for forces to push the Taliban back. A week after the massacre, however, the government announced to carry out an operation to clear the now-empty village of the Taliban and ISIS-K.
In the face of such a grim security situation, unfortunately, there is no sign of hope from the national unity government (NUG), the United States, its strategic and military ally, and the NATO Resolute Support mission, its partner in the fight against terrorism.
The NUG is struggling for its survival. It is beleaguered by political divide between CEO Abdullah Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani and has largely failed to agree on a professional and nonpolitical leadership in the security ministries; failed to devise a comprehensive and working security strategy; and has failed to curb corruption in the security sectors among others. General Abdullah Habibi, the former Afghan defense minister resigned in late April amid pressure following the widespread anger at the Taliban attack on 209 Shaheen Corps. Abdullah and Ghani’s teams have failed to agree on a replacement candidate since then and the Ministry of Defense, as a result of this political divide, has no permanent leadership. Corruption is yet another challenge that has rendered the security sector weak. At the conclusion of a conference on combating corruption in Afghanistan defense and security sector, Abdullah said that“the loss caused by corruption in the Afghan security forces is shocking.”
This is not limited to the security sector, however. Ghani’s unrelenting push for centralization has mired the NUG in a poisonous political divide. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, first deputy to the CEO, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Balkh governor Ata Mohmmad Noor have raised their voices repeatedly over the past few months against centralization of power by the president’s team. Resentful and concerned about the current state of affairs in the NUG, the three, who are also in leadership positions in three major political parties, have created the “Coalition for Salvation of Afghanistan” in Ankara, Turkey where Dostum currently lives in de facto exile.
Following this coalition, critics of NUG and some former political figures who were on Karzai’s team, formed yet another alliance named “Axis of Afghanistan People.” There are serious suspicions that Karzai may be behind it. Another strongman, former commander in the Afghan army and deputy speaker of Afghan Parliament, Zahir Qadir, organized a big gathering in eastern Afghanistan where he talked of the “Unity of People of Mashriqi” and had harsh rhetoric for the NUG. This all means that the leadership in the NUG has failed negotiate with these figures to form a stronger national unity government.
As such, the NUG faces grave challenges. Insecurity is on the rise and Taliban, as well as ISIS-K, are gaining more ground. The NUG’s political and military ally, the United States, has yet to come up with a strategy on Afghanistan. Other issues of global concern, like the tension between the United States and North Korea, distracts the Americans from focusing on Afghanistan in the short run. In such a vacuum, other players like Iran and Russia are trying to become more assertive.
The insurgents’ targeting of ethnic and religious minorities and the government’s inability to protect them have the potential to reopen deep ethnic rifts. The Taliban’s recent war crimes in Taiwara and crime against humanity in Mirza Olang, counter any optimism that the Taliban would become less hardline and ethnocentric. With all these elements in picture, it seems that with every day in, the Afghan people, and especially minority communities like Hazaras who are targeted by the insurgents, have no choice but to take up arms for a “struggle for existence,” a situation will put the government between a rock and a hard place as it struggles for its survival as a functioning state.
Bismellah Alizada has a BA in political science from Kabul University and is co-founder of the Youth Development Association. He is a contributor to Global Voices and Deputy Director at Kabul-based Organization for Policy Research and Development Organization (DROPS).