Small Wars Journal

Turns Out Afghanistan’s Fate is a Game-Changer - Part I

Tue, 05/17/2022 - 5:03pm

Turns Out Afghanistan’s Fate is a Game-Changer - Part I

by Allyson Christy 

Sep 2021

I would say it as a general proposition ... we should not enter wars whose end we cannot ascribe and for which we have no defined strategy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        —Henry Kissinger, Kissinger, On Diplomacy

Disorder in Kabul – An Overview

The world watched in astonishment as America withdrew from Afghanistan last year. Reality hit hard in August, as departures were fast-tracked, initiating chaos, violence, tragedy—creating widespread panic as events quickly unfolded. Satellite images showed crowds rushing the Kabul International Airport; many swarmed the only runway while others tried grabbing onto military aircraft. Video later showed the horror of two people falling to their deaths after a plane was airborne. The U.S. Air Force later confirmed finding human remains inside the landing gear of a C-17. Shock peaked when a bomb exploded at the airport a few days later, killing at least 169 Afghans and 13 US service members, and leaving many injured.


In late July, Commander of U.S. Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie, told members of the press that negotiations for Turkey to provide airport security were still ongoing. McKenzie also indicated the Afghan government was not only ready, but would ultimately be responsible for the defense of the airfield in Kabul. Earlier in the month, the United States evacuated the heavily fortified compound in Bagram. The military air base was to be handed over to Afghan government forces following President Joe Biden’s order to pull out—the White House maintains the decision was based on military advice. Rumors there were gaps in briefing the incoming Afghan commander and disconnecting electricity at Bagram were also not disputed by Pentagon and White House officials, but Afghan officials claimed it left the airbase vulnerable to looters. In hindsight, these events supported the Taliban takeover.


Taliban Victory

By mid-August, the Taliban had seized control of Kabul and Bagram, and images of Taliban fighters posing with U.S. military hardware were soon posted to social media. U.S. allies and enemies alike were not only stunned, but the Taliban’s swift control wielded brutality in a wake of terror. Despite mounting atrocities that followed, President Biden did not revisit his I do not regret statement to withdrawing troops.


ISIS Resurgence

ISIS immediately claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport during the exit chaos, and reports emphasized ISIS-K—the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, connected to the Khorasan Province. An area that includes parts of Iran and Afghanistan, Khorasan embodies historic inspiration for Muslim victory, the black flag, and Armageddon. The K offshoot formed in 2014, linking frustrated members of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban to allegiance with self-proclaimed ISIS caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a 2019 U.S.-led raid. Military strikes have significantly reduced its capabilities, but ISIS-K is still one of the most active affiliates of the wider Islamic State insurgency.

Contentions between ISIS and the Taliban are fundamentally sectarian. Salafi-Jihadists unite behind a rigid caliphate doctrine that glorifies a global movement, while the Taliban favors local authority. It is the Khorasan faction that Joe Biden immediately directed tough talk of hunting down, following through with a drone strike in late August. The latter was purported to killing the individual ISIS-K member involved in planning the Kabul airport bombing. The Pentagon later called the strike a tragic mistake and confirmed civilian deaths that included children.



Humanitarian and economic crises have widened gaps in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control. Economic sanctions and limited access to the global banking sector have worsened conditions and hindered much-needed foreign aid. Access to healthcare is severely limited and financially deficient. Adherence to Islamic law is strictly enforced. Girls are again denied education. Unemployment is high. Food insecurity is a growing concern due to drought and rising food prices and millions of Afghans are starving. Desperation has forced some parents to sell their children.


Misery leads to despair, and hopelessness often welcomes false promises from radicals and illicit groups only too willing to exploit vulnerabilities. Similarly, terrorist organizations like ISIS-K are open to absorbing rival groups. Minority-Shia communities are also exposed to sectarian violence, and recent explosions at a western Kabul high school in a predominantly Shia-Hazara neighborhood are tantamount to past attacks linked to Sunni extremists, including ISIS-K who asserts its authority, not in collaboration with the Taliban, but under the ISIS caliphate banner. The targeting of these communities is an ongoing threat in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, the resurgence of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), otherwise known as the Pakistan Taliban, has strong ties to the Afghan Taliban;      many of its members were released from Afghanistan’s prisons last year.


Cross-border violence with Pakistan has worsened. Hostilities over the Durand Line, delineating Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, and which the Afghan Taliban does not accept, have escalated. Partly at issue is the continued building of a security fence and clashes in recent months that have disrupted construction efforts. The 129-year demarcation cuts through substantial ethnic, sectarian, and tribal communities on both sides, implicating tensions between two principal tribal groups, Pashtuns and Punjabis, and others including the Baloch who are mostly concentrated in the south. Pashtuns, however, are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan;     Punjabis are prevalent in Pakistan. Areas along the Durand Line have long been a hotbed for lawlessness and a hub for crime, smuggling, and trafficking, serving core refuge points for militant factions on both sides.


Pakistan claims its border fence will secure order, counteract criminal and terrorist activities, and facilitate trade and improve crossings through checkpoints. Critics decry long waits with corruption and bribery, saying (mainly Pashtun) families are divided by immigration controls and that vital commercial activity is being held up. Attacks against the Pakistani military and security forces at the border have moreover risen since the Afghan Taliban took power last year, linking a resurgent TTP and allegations of sanctuary in Afghanistan, to the radical group ending a month-long ceasefire with the Pakistani government last December. Retaliatory air raids are the latest border measures taken by Islamabad, with claims of civilian deaths that have only increased tensions with Taliban officials in Kabul.


Baloch militants are also tied to an upsurge in violence, largely against Chinese targets in Pakistan. Hostilities are directly related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Balo     chistan, a mountainous, yet resource-rich province in Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arabian Sea. Both countries include significant Baloch communities, but outcries for independence and separatism have      plagued Islamabad for decades. Activists and militants, including members of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), have sought refuge for a number of years in Afghanistan. But sanctuary status is now erratic as the Taliban has allegedly begun cracking down on certain Baloch communities, forcing many to flee to Nimroz (Afghanistan), which borders a notorious tri-border region between Pakistan and Iran.


The BLA claimed responsibility for a recent suicide bombing that killed Chinese nationals in Karachi, yet there may also be complicity with the TTP over similar attacks last year. Pakistan’s security experts believe there is collusion involving the Pakistan Taliban. Suicide bombing is a known part of that group’s modus operandi and is not generally a BLA detonation tactic. But warnings of continued violence against Chinese targets are increasingly worrisome to both Islamabad and Beijing.


There are comparable suspicions that Afghanistan, India, and Iran are covertly backing Baloch separatists, and though such allegations may not be widely substantiated, cross-border movements are tied to subversive groups. Pakistan officials marked terrorist encampments in Iran to lethal assaults against its security forces in early February. The development project for India’s transit use of the Chabahar      Port in southeast Iran may also be seen as direct competition to China’s economic corridor at Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in Balochistan     . Iranian officials assert the port in Chabahar      is open to global investment and not exclusive to India. But the port will still benefit Delhi with direct access to Afghanistan and beyond, while bypassing Pakistan. Overseeing corridor barriers is long a Pakistani tactic in limiting Indian political and economic access to Kabul.


India seeks not only greater cooperation with Tehran by reinstituting plans to expand the Chabahar Port, but it figures into transport connectivity between the Indian Ocean, Eurasia, Russia, and Europe. The arrangement is not likely to sit well with Pakistan or China. Both countries are rivals with India, and Pakistan too, seeks greater trade access to Central Asia using additional ports and developing rail. But humanitarian stressors have pushed Islamabad and Delhi to accept      a transport agreement allowing Indian wheat to reach Afghanistan. Tensions between the two countries remain pivoted on the contested Kashmir region and India is also a strategic ally with the United States. The reach to Kabul exemplifies opportunities that are wide open for regional development, but inroads to that goal are largely indefensible.



Similar to the 2011 U.S. troop pullout from Iraq and the power vacuum it created, instability continues to lurk behind the Taliban takeover. Destabilization expedites corruption and ethnic and sectarian conflict; it exacerbates humanitarian crises; distresses the economy; and urges unrest and more violence. Government collapse follows with the failure of public service infrastructures. Civil upheaval that divided Iraq opened a path for ISIS and a foothold for Iran.


Afghanistan’s fate may be no different as it is plagued with dissidence and hostilities, drought and poverty, and vast numbers of people are displaced and homeless. Thousands fled the country last year, and time will tell whether Pakistan and Iran will bear the brunt with the highest numbers recorded from the previous year. Both continue guarding their borders as a

humanitarian catastrophe continues to wreak havoc. Desperate attempts to flee Afghanistan are met with treacherous journeys and cycles of abuse and deportations. Recorded beatings have recently appeared on social media sites, prompting sensitive exchanges between Kabul and Tehran.


The global community will invariably continue to deal with the suffering left unsettled by the Americans and Europeans withdrawing missions from Afghanistan. The added task of resettling and acclimatizing even more refugees comes amid tense immigration policies and well-known worries over vetting, radicals, and unsecure borders. Evidence will continue to emerge of rejected intelligence—earlier reports citing concerns for violence, Taliban resurgence, and the likelihood of collapse and civil war, and that there was no clear plan to protect Afghans who worked for the U.S. government. As Biden quickly pointed blame and sidestepped direct questions last summer, the disaster highlighted a weak administration.

U.S departure from Afghanistan rocks a foundation of trust, emphasizing power vacuums and political uncertainties. Iran recognizes the impending scenarios, while violent extremists are known to rally over vulnerable gaps in “weak and failed states.” The Taliban understands that control wavers between hostile rivalries and divided loyalties and the irregularities that are associated with its brutal suppression of human rights. Meanwhile, Beijing is cautiously assessing events as they continue to unfold in a hostile and nuclear-capable region.

About the Author(s)

Allyson Christy holds an M.A. in Intelligence and Terrorism Studies from American Military University and an Executive Certificate in Counter-Terrorism from the ICT Herzliya. Twitter link @allysonchristy



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