Civil War Returns: Revenge and Score Settling in Afghanistan, Part 4

Afghan Army soldier
Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos / Public domain

In this fourth analysis among a seven-part study on Afghanistan, Adnan Qaiser, with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, examines why the prospects of an effective intra-Afghan dialogue – as envisaged in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal of February 2020 – remain bleak, and why the threat of a revived Afghan civil-war loom large over the country. [Read the previous parts here]

Abraham Lincoln had probably noted for Afghanistan: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Afghanistan has remained a sad spectacle of tribal feuds and ethnic distrust; revenge and bloodshed; competing interests and power-play; poppy cultivation, opium production; and treachery and humanity’s abuse.

The problem is that with so many stakeholders, non-state actors and power centres caught in an unending tug-of-war nobody actually knows what is going on in Afghanistan. Some say it is a battlefield of competing interests where it is hard to identify who is working for whom, and at what price. 

In Pashtun culture it is said: “Talks are just chatter; ultimate arbitrator remains the gun.” Thus, subsequent to the U.S.-Taliban peace deal of February 2020, an expectation for a friction-free intra-Afghan dialogue remains improbable. In order to give peace a chance, all Afghan stakeholders need to abandon their “victor or vanquisher” mindset. However, it is easier said than done in view of Afghan’s culture of revenge – that keeps passing on from generations to generations like blood, pride and honour in the veins. Having gone through a civil-war in the early 1990s, chances of another intra-Afghan conflict remain inevitable; this time deadlier and more ferocious to settle some 19-year old scores.

While proudly proclaiming their land as a “graveyard of empires,” little do the Afghans realize that for centuries they have been killing – and burying – their own kith-and-kin too, owing to their internal discords, competing interests and a culture of revenge. Ethnic conflicts and tribal rivalries have not only kept Afghans dependent upon foreign powers, but their mutual acrimony and distrust impede peace prospects too. Afghanistan will never see a true peace unless disparate and heterogeneous Afghans ethnicities reconcile among themselves and stop supplicating to other countries. 

With war fatigue and frustration clearly written on his face, President Trump had rightly recounted: “Countries have to take care of themselves … You can hold someone’s hand for so long.” Mr. Trump’s foresight about Taliban “possibly” seizing control of the country has further been confirmed by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, voicing: “Our jihad is not over. The [Afghan government] stooges who supported the invaders during the last two decades are our enemies … we are still at war.” 

An Obdurate and Technocrat President 

Similar to a naive and obstinate President Ghani’s ill-advised hanging of six Taliban inmates on May 8, 2016  – rebuffing the advice of Amnesty International and former President Hamid Karzai – his taunt to the Taliban after the peace deal is unlikely to win him any concessions from the Taliban. Ghani, who should be more worried about his political future and personal safety, instead annoyed the Taliban further by asking them to break their ties with neighbouring Pakistan and sneered, “You have made peace with the foreigners, so what does your jihad mean now?” President Ghani’s jibe may have meant to say that killing of fellow Muslim Afghans cannot be jihad in the name of Allah. However, Taliban’s terse response vowed their “jihad to continue” against an illegitimate and foreign puppet regime. 

Furthermore, Mr. Ghani’s insidiousness and lack of commitment to intra-Afghan talks became evident from his selection of a 21-member negotiating team. Headed by a former intelligence chief, Masoom Stanekzai, almost all members were fierce critics and progenies of former warlords carrying hostile outlook towards the Taliban. Moreover, knowing a conservative Islamist militia’s uneasiness with womenfolk, Ghani included five hard-line women in the team to rub his adversary’s sensibilities the wrong way. Finding fault in the nominees, no brainer, the militia’s leadership rejected President Ghani’s team. 

Despite facing hostility not only from the Taliban but also from rival Abdullah Abdullah, an unyielding Ghani seems prepared to drag the country towards another civil war, but not to share power under any circumstances. Denying similar “dangers [or] threats that existed” at post-2014 presidential election, Ghani emphatically rebuffed any notion of a power-sharing government in an interview to Radio Free Europe on Sep. 26, 2019 – even if it led to a civil war situation. 

A president by the stroke of luck and foreign blessings, Ghani had been lacking leadership credentials and political acumen. BBC called him “a former technocrat who spent much of his career outside Afghanistan.” Ghani remained disconnected with the masses, only ruling through the power of the constitution (that granted him unlimited powers) and a rogue intelligence agency. As discussed in Part-III, President Ghani’s intelligence outfit has not only unleashed a reign of terror in the country but also running riot with the lives of hapless Afghans.

The Curse of Private Militias

During the Afghan war, the insurgents always touted that while the “Western forces carry watches; they have the time” (at their side). Same principle applies to the Afghan culture of revenge, when personal and tribal vendettas are settled over generations. This time, however, some 19-year old rancour, grudges and wrongs need to be settled, which will undoubtedly bring more violence and bloodshed. Thus, it remains natural for the Taliban to refuse talking to the Afghan regime, considering it illegitimate and foreign sponsored. Expectedly, the Taliban have already broken-off the initial consultations with the government on prisoner-release citing them “fruitless meetings … delayed under one pretext or another.”

Meanwhile, a disruption of status quo – that has further enriched the elites and warlords on Western largesse – remains unacceptable to the Afghan government. Warlords belonging to the former Northern Alliance (and comprising of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnicities) – who rode to Kabul on the back of the U.S. forces after the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001 and carried out unprecedented war-crimes and genocide – are understandably nervous because their payback time has arrived.

Warlordism, meanwhile, remains deeply entrenched in Afghanistan. Since these warlords have reinforced their private militias through massive corruption and siphoning-off of weapons meant for the Afghan security forces, another ferocious civil war – similar to that of 1992-1996 after the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghan Jihad – is written on the wall. The demolition of an illegal arms depot belonging to Jan Mohammad, said to be a close ally of former chief executive Dr. Abdullah, by the U.S. forces on June 29, 2015 had not only underscored the failure of Afghanistan’s disarmament program but also signified the Afghan leadership’s dependence on private militias. 

Moreover, NATO forces’ militarization of an already polarized Afghan populace by creating and arming private militias called ‘Arbakais’ will go a long way in denying peace to this war-torn country. In order to legitimize their private militias and equip them with latest weapons through legal channels, the local power-brokers and warlords in the Afghan government convinced the foreign forces about the need of having “community policing” to supplement national security and defence forces, though without law enforcement powers. 

The creation of a large number of such militias under the nomenclatures of Afghan National Auxiliary Police, Afghan Social Outreach Program Forces, Community Defense Forces, Community Defense Initiative/Local Defense Initiative Forces, and Interim Security Structure under Critical Infrastructure Protection Force program, led to further ‘weaponization’ of an already armed society that has long survived on war economy. In the absence of foreign forces to act as an arbitrator among the warring groups, a civil war styled armed clashes cannot be ruled out among smaller fiefdoms and against Taliban. 

In its damning report of September 2011, the Human Rights Watch denounced the creation of so-called “local police” by noting that the government has reactivated hundreds of irregular armed militia groups under a deliberate policy of the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Created by powerful local strongmen or warlords many of them have been accused of human rights abuses. With patronage links to senior officials in the local security forces and the central government, these groups operate with impunity.

On the other hand, the Taliban’s Fidayee Mahaz, a breakaway faction of young zealots, had already rejected any peace negotiations and vowed to fight until a final victory through the power of the barrel. Only time will tell if Mullah Haibutullah Akhund, the Taliban’s emir is able to control the renegade groups. 

Afghan Genocide and Mass Graves

Under Afghan culture of vengeance warring groups forgiving and forgetting the massive carnage and mayhem remains out of question. Therefore, it was too late for General Abdul Rashid Dostum to counsel, “We should not wash blood with blood,” as noted by Carlotta Gall in her book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.

The Battles of Mazar-i-Sharif fought from 1997 to 1998, and resurrected in December 2001 in the shape of Dash-i-Leili massacre – when Taliban prisoners were suffocated to death in truck-containers and buried in mass graves by General Dostum’s forces, belonging to the Northern Alliance – will keep haunting Afghanistan for times to come. Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission later confirmed the destruction of massacre’s evidence in 2008. 

Furthermore, the 800-page report of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission titled Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan since 1978 featuring 180 mass graves containing the remains of those Afghans who had been summarily executed between the Communist Saur Revolution of April 1978 and the fall of Taliban in December 2001 may not allow peace to return easily to this war-ravaged country.

Old Political Score Settling 

Owing to their belief about the illegal removal of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Taliban have always considered the post-Bonn 2001 political dispensation as illicit and unlawful. Notwithstanding the two symbolic Pashtun presidents, the Northern Alliance’s de facto take-over of Kabul with the backing of international forces, cannot be easily forgotten or forgiven.

As warlordism has been reinforced – ironically under the direct watch of NATO forces – Afghan society and its polity is likely to remain at daggers drawn to each other. Thus, the ultimate fate of Afghan leaders, like Marshal Qasim Fahim (Karzai’s vice president), Abdul Rashid Dostum (Ghani’s first vice president until he went into self-exile after torturing one of his political opponents, Ahmad Eshchi in November 2016), Karim Khalili (Karzai’s vice president and head of High Peace Council), Ustad Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq (leader of Hezb-e-Wahdat), Atta Mohammad Noor (the powerful governor of Balkh province), Ahmad Wali Massud (brother of legendary Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massud) and several others awaits to be decided.

Moreover, despite Afghan government’s peace agreement with Gulbadin Hekmatyar in September 2016, Taliban’s rapprochement or reconciliation with the notorious “Butcher of Kabul” remains to be seen. An arbitrarily pardoned, but remorseless Mr. Hekmatyar keeps refusing to apologize for his war-crimes. Human Rights Watch had condemned the deal as “an affront to victims of grave abuses,” which compounds a “culture of impunity” fostered by the government and foreign donors. 

Since sharing of political space and government power with the radically backward Taliban does not serve the interests of the Afghan elites, we saw no urgency or seriousness on part of the Afghan government(s) to engage in honest and meaningful dialogue with the Taliban in the past, rhetoric notwithstanding.

As discussed in last chapter, the futility of the much trumpeted High Peace Council (HPC) was enough to demonstrate Karzai and Ghani regimes’ lack of commitment in power-sharing and political reconciliation. The HPC, which was created with a lot of hope and exuberance on Sep. 5, 2010, kept running from pillar-to-post with its Roadmap 2015, before dying its death on 27 July 2019. 

Riaz Muhammad Khan, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, who dealt with the Afghan affairs after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, notes: “The Afghan leaders are often propelled by their individual ambitions and divided along political and ethnic lines. [L]eaders were driven by narrow, parochial self-interest, with little sensitivity to the continued misery of ordinary Afghans suffering on account of the conflict.”

Afghanistan has been a chronicle of merciless vengeance and bloodshed. In the absence of foreign forces – when there would be no holds barred and no one to inculcate some sense of restraint or forbearance to the warring groups – the country’s internecine ethnic and tribal feuds spurred by regional interference will likely to drag the country towards another civil-war like situation.

While the new buzz-word is intra-Afghan dialogue, those familiar with Afghanistan’s history  know that the country has remained a “graveyard of empires” – as well as a cemetery of native Afghans. Afghanistan will remain an obituary unless the country’s political fundamentals and its intrinsic discrepancies are fully understood – and addressed:

1) First of all, the Afghan’s historic ethno-linguistic discords, mutual distrust and a culture of retribution needs to be brought to an end. Like any modern-day nation-state, Afghanistan must shed its heavy baggage of past and emerge as an inclusive society and an incorporating polity

2) The Afghan leadership has to come out of its rentier mindset. The politicians must stop looking towards regional and extra-regional powers for legitimacy and support; in return leasing-out national dignity and state sovereignty 

3) At the same time, the Afghans must recognize the elite-capture of their society. The foreign-brand expatriates on plum government jobs are no panacea of Afghan maladies. These savvy emigrants loath their conservative and deprived countrymen and remain disconnected to the cultural ethos and political aspirations of the masses

4) A proper political structure needs to be evolved and established – preferably under the traditional and well-respected Loya Jirga – bringing an end to tribal warlordism and private militias. A nationally recognized and legitimate central government must exercise its full control over peripheral areas, granting the provinces their due democratic rights and autonomy

5) Afghanistan’s dependence on a war and crime-based economy, particularly narcotics trade must end. This can only happen if poppy-cultivating farmers are provided with an alternate source of income and economic incentives, and  

6) Finally, Afghanistan’s largely rural-based, Islamic-moored, Sharia-adhered society needs to be provided with an alternate model of governance, which not only conforms to the Islamic tenets and injunctions but also meets the present-day democratic and human rights prerequisites. As I have noted in my studies on Islamic radicalism, more often than not, “religious-terrorism” emanates from political repression and socio-economic injustice. Unless Afghan’s abject poverty is redressed through legitimate government and provided with swift and inexpensive justice, people will keep looking towards messianic fundamentalists like Taliban

Documenting U.S. mistakes, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall record in their scholarship Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way, “[T]he US empowered a network of thugs and minor warlords to pursue a counterterrorist approach that itself fell victim to confused strategy, competing agendas and inflexible decision-making.”

Afghanistan has never been vanquished by any foreign invader; it has always been beaten by itself.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.