Kristian Berg Harpviken describes why the Afghan war became one of the most intractable conflicts in decades.
The conflicts in present-day Afghanistan stretch back further than the attacks on September 11th.

Why has this region been so prone to war, and what factors have led to such rampant destruction?
"Most people started talking about Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11," says Kristian Berg Harpviken, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). The attacks in New York made quite an impression and became the pretext for an armed intervention that happened only three weeks later.

"It's good to be reminded of this," he says. "Not just because the attacks were pivotal but because it was significant how the American response was decided."

Some frame that response as a risky, resource-intensive intervention. And a quick one, with only three and a half weeks of preparation, without an advance plan at the Pentagon. The speed and scope was nearly unimaginable.
People used to talk about Afghanistan as a peace process, and did so for years. But now most use the term the Afghan conflict. To have used words like 'conflict' back in 2005 would have created protest, but for Harpviken this mindset was present and led to political mistakes made in the early years of the operation.

It has been a hot region for years, stretching from war in the 1980's with the Soviets to a period of ethnic strife to the American intervention after the 2001 attacks. But by the end of that year, the Taliban had demobilized and laid down arms. They were willing to comply with the rule of the new government, and even many soldiers inside the Taliban recognized the new administration in Kabul as legitimate.

The Bonn Conference took place in late November and December and brought members of different Afghan parties to the table, but these representatives mostly represented the victors. At that point the intervention was mostly by proxy: there were few American boots on the ground, and western support amounted to supporting friendly Afghan forces against the Taliban. This was a very different than would take place in Iraq.

In order to mobilize the maximum amount of local force, many Afghans with some sort of fighting background were sought throughout the world. This included gas station workers in the USA or kebab chefs in Sydney. Everyone was invited to come back to Afghanistan to fight.

When that first set of battles were one, there were no more than 400 international personnel on the ground and a lot of them were intelligence or tech officers. Many operations would be handled by Afghan partners, as in a case when Osama bin Laden was nearly caught. The Americans decided it was too risky for their own forces, but the Afghans weren't blind themselves to how dangerous the proposed mission was.

At that time bin Laden was considered the main enemy, but there wasn't enough of a mandate to take the risks involved in capturing him. This changed quite dramatically.

An initial peace deal was hammered out at the end of 2001. Hamid Karzai, the leader of a prominent Pashtun tribe, was agreed on as president. The other details, however, were quite thin – it was more a statement of intentions rather than a comprehensive peace deal.

One of the most glaring omissions, in retrospect, was the absence of the losing party. The Taliban was not invited to Bonn.

Al-Qaeda and The Taliban

A common thought back in 2001, and even today in some influential quarters, is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are the same. This is a misconception with major consequences.

Al-Qaeda is the organization that both planned and executed the attacks – they are an international jihadi organization with aims that exclude the expulsion of western military forces from 'the lands of Islam.' The Taliban is an Afghanistan-based organization that seeks local policies that are in line with its interpretation of Islam.

They had hosted al-Qaeda representatives, but in many ways the two organizations made unnatural bedfellows. They had very different objectives, strategies and policies.

There are some narratives out there that the Afghan Taliban was a creation of Pakistan. This is a narrative that Harpviken doesn't have a lot of respect for. He would rather draw our attention to how a number of people who had fought the Soviets went back to their lives but felt a deep dissatisfaction with the government. There was corruption, some cases of sexual abuse with children, and the Taliban emerged as a conservative alternative to factional in-fighting. Pakistan observed their activities and threw support behind the early Taliban.

Because different factions amounted to various warlords spread out over the country, the stability the Taliban was bringing allowed for certain infrastructural and transportational guarantees to emerge once more. Many warlords operated like mafia leaders and had extracted brutal tax collection regimes.

The government was a coalition of Mujahideen parties that operated as a government in exile during the Soviet occupation in the 1980's, and when they came back in the 1990's they fought each other for power. In the north certain warlords controlled vast regions, but in the south you had much smaller fiefdoms. Which meant that you would drive sometimes for maybe fifteen minutes before being stopped at another checkpoint and asked for tax.

Most of the Taliban members were from the Pashtun ethnic group, which hailed from the south and were divided up into various tribes (the north was dominated by Tajiks and other Persian-speakers, many of whom supported a leader named Ahmad Shah Massoud). The cities of Jalalabad and Karachi had a Pashtun-majority, and the Pashtun region passes over the border deep into Pakistan.

The initial leaders of the Taliban were Pashtuns, and while they promoted themselves as an Islamic justice movement their recruitment was mostly among Pashtun tribes and became associated with that ethnic identity. Only later did they succeed in gaining support among other groups.

Local fatigue with the political status quo led many to wonder if the Taliban would offer some kind of alternative, and when the group took Kabul in 1996 there was national excitement. Even feminist thinkers praised the Taliban for the protection offered against rape, but their ideas about women's participation in public life were concerning. No one knew what to expect.

Internationally there wasn't a whole lot of interest in Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. CIA agents who had developed contact networks were relocated and the country was deprioritized in favour of other hotspots that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, not to mention the genocide in Rwanda.

In Pakistan, however, Afghanistan was a constant priority. There were large refugee populations in Pakistan, and a lot of recruitment took place there (for the Taliban as well as for American/Pakistani operatives). It wasn't until 2001 that the region took center stage again, and Pakistan was pressured by the US to join the War on Terror.

It did join, but it also built strong connections among the Taliban and other groups. There was a sophisticated game being played, and not many people know how much control or influence the Pakistani leaders had.
At the Bonn Conference, at least in the context of peacebuilding, it was a major challenge to go into the peace process without the losing party. There were a lot of misconceptions within the international community as to what had been going on in the country for the past decade, and this led to confusion.

Lumping the Taliban (a local governing power) in with al-Qaeda (an international terrorist organization) was a large misstep. Excluding them from the table had been justified as an attempt not to legitimize terrorism. Also, the different groups in the winning coalition themselves fought with each other and the idea of bringing in one more party didn't seem productive.

Karzai, for a number of reasons, was willing to reach out to the Taliban and even initiated attempts. Many informal dispute mechanisms existed in the differing Pashtun tribes, and Karzai's heritage could have been an asset. But this idea was rejected by his national and international partners.

"But the idea," Harpviken says, "that the Taliban was seen as a global jihadist movement is ridiculous." This was not exclusive to the Bush administration, either: even Obama's chief advisor on the region had a similar opinion.

The Taliban's political objectives exclusively concerned Afghanistan. They weren't, and aren't, interested in a global jihadist program or a caliphate. They sometimes express sympathy, but it's not known whether or not these signs of support are tactical or genuine. They've consistently shown a willingness to break with movements like Al-Qaeda.

Many Taliban members only have a rudimentary religious education supplied by local madrasas (religious schools). These offered 4-8 years of basic schooling, and graduates don't understand Arabic and, as some have argued, may not have engaged with Islam in a sophisticated manner.

It must be said, however, that certain madrasas were supported by al-Qaeda, or by Saudi donors close to bin Laden or with similar interests, and these schools were seen as hotbeds for recruitment.

Generally speaking, the ideological and social differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda are large. The Taliban may have seen the alliance as both a hospitality commitment (common in certain Islamic networks) but also as a threat. They tried to contain their partners in a number of ways, including monitoring or even constraining their movement. Bin Laden didn't give many public interviews because the Taliban didn't want that. There were a diversity of opinions on the issue, but al-Qaeda was seen in many ways as a problem.

The Taliban event sent someone to the Americans in Pakistan with a warning that there was a large plan in the works. This report disappeared into the forest of intelligence, only to be remembered after the New York attacks.

The Taliban may have been feeling just as desperate, and faulty narratives about how they fit into the picture may have fueled a decade of chaos and conflict.

Peace Process or Conflict?

The initial Bonn Conference was plagued by a number of other issues other than the inclusion of the Taliban. A number of problems involved the regional environment.

Pakistan was always an influential player, but Afghanistan had a lot of neighbours. Some of them were called in and asked to participate, but there was a concrete idea of what they were supposed to do. A representative from Iran was a major player in pressuring different Afghan parties to sign the deal, and at that point there was cooperation between that country and America with regards to Afghanistan's future.

But while that cooperation proved fruitful, it lasted only until Iran was placed on America's list of states forming the "axis-of-evil." Contact was severed, and this may have come at enormous costs to Afghanistan.

While what happened in Bonn and the following months was termed conflictual peacebuilding, it still led to some results.

From 2002-03 many people had demobilized from their civilian posts, and there was virtually no military action from the Taliban. They were reached out to, attempts were made to reconcile, and white flags were offered. Parallel to this, however, many were captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay. There they were tortured or otherwise detained without legal recourse to any larger structure than the American military.

So what happened – how did the peace process reignite into a conflict spill out of control?

Government mismanagement was one factor, and the Bonn process couldn't sufficiently work against certain privileges that were later abused. Officials enriched themselves and used their resources to get back at their enemies, and sometimes used international means to do so.

Another important factor was the profile of international military operations. The presence of foreign troops wasn't relatively enormous (15,000 people, in a few years there would be ten times as many), but these were mostly special forces. Their primary mandate was not to stabilize Afghanistan but to defend the world from terrorism.

The government was willing to point them towards 'terrorists', but directed these operations mostly at their enemies. The extend of the violence, and the repressive actions involved, stirred a new wave of counter-reactions.

Much can be gleaned from stories on the ground. You hear a special forces commander saying they searched every house three times in 2003 – this may seem relatively innocuous, but entering a person's private domain in the Afghan context was complicated. Gender issues were particularly sensitive, and only too late did international forces recruit women to assist with these searches.

Then there were various tensions that were build into the agreement itself, tensions that proved untenable over time. The international military presence only further complicated matters, and the forces that were dedicated to stabilizing the country and to neutralizing terrorists were seen as undermining each other.

"The conflict was lost sometime between 2006-2007", Harpviken says. "But to say that then would not have made you popular."

Histories of Violence

Many of the factors that caused the breakdown of the Bonn agreement and the resurgence of violence in the country are historical. This is particularly true when it comes to factionalism, ethnic makeup and border issues.

The territory of Afghanistan was often part of Persia or various other empires of the day. It wasn't until 1747 that the Durrani tribe, to which Karzai belonged, declared independence and formed their own empire. At its height it controlled much of Pakistan and parts of Iran, but the Durrani rulers were of Pashtun origin. Since the Durrani Empire is considered by many to be the precursor to modern Afghanistan, Pashtun ethnicity (particularly if you are a Durrani) remains significant.

The current composition of Afghanistan, however, emerged when Pakistan was part of British India. The Central Asian states to the north were a combination of smaller kingdoms and khanates that gradually fell under the influence of the Russian Empire. Neither the British or the Russians wanted their empires to brush up against each other, and so agreed on the formation of a buffer state.

Thus the borders were drawn up according to colonial interests, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen and more lumped together into a country and all called Afghans. And like other classic buffer states, the Afghan rulers had to agree to British management of their foreign affairs until 1919.

From 1919 until the 1970's, however, the region was for the most part peaceful. But different geopolitical changes would slowly make peace impossible. First there was the British withdrawal from South Asia, followed by the partition into India and Pakistan. In the meantime the USSR controlled Central Asia to the north until it collapsed and resulting republics like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan found themselves bordering Afghanistan.

"The state with the largest consistent interest in Afghanistan," Harpviken reminds us, "is Pakistan." But he says that it's not because the country is interested in Afghan affairs so much as because Afghanistan is part of South Asia, along with Pakistan's major rival: India. Pakistan considers its larger neighbour as an existential threat, and so most decisions taken in the capital city of Islamabad concerning Afghanistan are informed by that threat.

China is also a major power nearby, and part of their enormous Belts and Roads Initiative (BRI) involves investing in South Asian infrastructure. This includes a China-Pakistan corridor, as well as increased ties to Afghanistan. India is also a beneficiary, and they seek to improve their standing while limiting Pakistan's.

So a country like Pakistan is always on some kind of defensive footing, which at times expresses itself in aggressive action. And this is understandable: millions of people were displaced from India during the Partition in 1947, and that led to a refugee situation more serious than the Syrian one today.

The military is also incredibly powerful, as are the intelligence services. Many experts claim that it may be more powerful than the civilian state (and there have been a number of examples when the military took direct power.

One of the military's largest interests was preventing Afghanistan from becoming an Indian ally, and working towards this end was more important than aiding the American War on Terror, catching bin Laden or stabilizing the country.

In the event of potential military aggression from India, it was desirable to have enough influence in Afghanistan that the country's territory would be open to the Pakistani military should things turn sour. This was known as strategic depth, and in theory it would provide the ability to cross the border to regroup if necessary. Maintaining alliances, even with the Taliban, may have been essential.

These were all important factors that might not have been taken completely into account by the anti-Taliban alliance, and maybe policies would have been different if everything was on the table. As it was, they soon found themselves sucked into an internationalized civil war.

Ethnicities & Alliances

Speaking about "Pashtuns" in Afghanistan can be unhelpful. Some commentators describe them as a united group, but there are plenty of divisions that need to be taken into account when analyzing internal relations. You have Pashtuns for whom ethnicity is key, and you have ones that take their cue from religion. You have Sunnis and Shi'as and tribal affiliations that interact in different ways: no one is 'just' a Pashtun. Different identities are always intersecting.

Many Pashtuns would say that they are the majority ethnic group in the country, but there hasn't been an official census (for obvious reasons). Harpviken suggests that they may make up less than half of the population due to demographic shifts that have become more pronounced with time.

The next largest group, Tajiks, are Persian-speakers associated with Tajikistan, which shares Afghanistan's northern border. Tajiks have very little tribal identity, tend to be more urbanized and are, on average, better educated. They have also been the best organized when speaking of the past forty years of war.

There are also large Uzbek and Turkmen populations, each corresponding to nearby Central Asian republics. But then there are the Hazara, whose homeland is the central Afghan highlands. They stand out by being almost exclusively Shi'a believers – there are other Shi'a groups in Badakhshon (which has connections to the Tajik Pamir region) and in small Pashtun areas.

There are credible reports that Russia has re-established ties to the Taliban. These include claims that Moscow is supplying arms, and this may indicate a change of ambitions. Russia used to have interests in stabilizing Central Asia, but now there may be a goal of gaining influence and challenging regional American hegemony.

Another source of external influence, as mentioned above, has been the funding of madrassas by various Gulf countries. The Taliban used to be more traditional, religiously speaking, but the emergence of radicalized discourse may be linked to wider Islamist movements.

Any attempt at trying to engage with the region has to take into account these internal and external influences.

In terms of what the Taliban can offer locals, there's a premium of stability and mechanisms of justice. There's a desperate need for these in the rural areas, and these are two things the Taliban can offer. While they do not have much else to offer, they have proved successful in providing these two. And they can be more effective than the central government in Kabul, though Kabul is obliged to provide a number of other services and rights.

When bin Laden was killed, it was an Afghan operation done on Pakistani soil in cooperation with US special forces. Pakistan was not informed and this created a rift with the US, but the fact that the world's most wanted terrorist was found just north of Islamabad was enough to quell criticism.
alejandra326 |
Much has been written (and speculated) on the ways Afghanistan is connected to transnational Islamist movements, but there's another way the country is linked to international networks: opium. 95% of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan and this has had a major effect on the conflict.

The Taliban has financed some of their work through opium, but the post-intervention spike in the drug trade came mostly from people at the periphery of the government structure. At one point the Taliban banned the drug trade in order to gain international legitimacy, but this affected local livelihoods and came at a great cost to the Taliban itself.

Of the three claims in the UN Security Council resolution on Afghan sanctions (human rights, hosting terrorists and the drug trade), the drugs were the easiest to start investigating and pursuing. This has been the source of some controversy, as the anti-drug mandate has been seen as sometimes having a greater priority than stabilizing the country.

There was a lot of deliberation about how best to apply the mandate, and the EU had a number of ideas about training police. While there was some momentum for this approach, they were overridden by the US anti-terror mandate.

There isn't a consensus about whether or not ISIS was a major actor in Afghanistan or if it was a token symbol being used by peripheral groups in the Taliban. Harpviken leans towards the latter, but acknowledges increasing violence in Kabul associated with the Islamic State.

It has to be mentioned that there are breakaway groups from the Taliban, just as the Islamic State was a breakaway group from al-Qaeda. Some of these smaller groups broke off for non-ideological reasons, but others did so because they wanted to line up with certain international Islamist movements.

Reports are coming in about fighters coming to Afghanistan from Syria, particularly ones allied with the Islamic State, but there's no concrete data concerning this at the moment. One thing that is for certain is that ISIS challenges the Taliban and offers an alternative for those who think the Taliban does not go far enough. This might be seen as a threat to their position in the country. This can generate rivalries for attention, and terror attacks can take place because of this.

China is another significant player. They have kept a low profile in Afghanistan, particularly after 2001, but in the 1970's one of the largest political parties was Maoist. Party members are said to have survived by infiltrating other parties and have been surprisingly resilient as a network without a direct political party.

In terms of direct action, China has been engaged with development and natural resources, buying the rights to a number of mines. They haven't been able to do much with these mines, however, and are sitting on one of the largest copper deposits in the world. It lies just east of Kabul, but widespread instability has meant that no development can take place yet.

Some analysts claim that China is playing the long game, as it is doing in many other Central Asian nations. And there is American frustration with the Chinese allegedly descending to take part of the spoils generated from American security attempts. There is less political action, generally, than infrastructural investment (there are projects trying to connect the ring road in the north), although there are signs that Beijing may be changing tactics.

China was one of the main players trying to convince Pakistan to get the Taliban to the discussion table, and it's unsure if this was a Chinese policy or if it was an American idea. Whether or not it will prove effective is yet to be seen: the Taliban may be trying to become less dependent on Pakistan, and other mechanisms may be needed to bring them to the negotiations.

Some claim that Chinese involvement in Afghanistan is out of concern with growing Islamist movements in Xinjiang, a western region home to a predominantly-Muslim Uyghur population. But this may be a sign of China's changing ambitions globally.

Engaging the Taliban as a member of the peace process remains complicated: while they are a de facto political power in Afghanistan, they are still labelled by many states as a terrorist organization. This damages their legitimacy, and there are often concerns with including them in talks out of fears of encouraging terrorism as a political strategy.

That said, there are whole discourses over who should be labelled a terrorist and who should not be. In some points of view, the Taliban is an imminently legitimate party that needs to be taken into account. And they have stepped back from certain connections to global jihadist movements in part to try to regain enough legitimacy to be taken seriously at the table.

However, while terrorism wasn't a tool in their toolbox before 2001, as of today they use it extensively.
Kristian Berg Harpviken was the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) from 2009-2017. His research focuses on the Afghanistan conflict, regional security and war-related migration & social networks.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo: ArmyAmber on
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