Taliban are willing to create a grand army with old Afghanistan regime troops. But how will they cope with the military constellation in the country?
Historic Outlook of the Military Forces in Afghanistan
The project of a new army for Afghanistan is something new. Since 1800 Afghanistan has had a long history of competing for local armed military forces that served a highly fragmented territory. Traditionally the central Afghan government has depended on negotiations and compromises with these local traditional forces. Still, because Afghanistan has different tribes and ethnicities, the central government has never been able to control and exercise its power over an entire country. Far and foremost, the government’s actions were restricted to cities allowing the rural areas to be indirectly controlled and governed by traditional governing bodies. Locally raised forces such as armed military forces usually were not paid directly by the government. They received aid in different forms, such as privileged status, money and exclusion from military services. The local leaders then used these resources to raise and fund local forces.
With the US intervention in the country, the US started to cope politically and strategically with local militias to secure the most remote rural areas of Afghanistan from the Taliban. For this (and other reasons), a mutual compromise existed between the rural communities and the former central government. The government allowed the rural areas a certain level of autonomy, and in return, they assisted the central government with loyalty and their own local forces. The political and territorial scenario on the ground before the Taliban takeover was the following:
- Local forces at the rural level
- National local troops at the state
- Extremist local troops at the sub-state level
Local and National Armed Forces in Afghanistan
The most well known local force in the country lives in the Pashtun-dominated Southeast area. Here a tribal-based community policing system is based upon the customary tribal code of Pashtunwali. It is composed of unpaid volunteers who are neither hired by the government nor by warlords. Their actions are approved and recognized as the common good of the community. Akarbai has to maintain law and order and control the borders and boundaries of the communities they serve.
The previous Afghan government often created other recognized local forces combined with US Special Forces. These can be the Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP) or the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3), as well as the Community Defense Initiative (CDI) and the Local Defense Initiative (LDI). Still, these were initiated solely by the US without the approval of the Afghan government. ANAP was created in 2006 to increase local security in areas facing threats from the Taliban. In theory, officers were supposed to be vetted and chosen locally by the community governors and councils. In practical terms, these people were not suited to do community-based policing, and recruits did not represent the community they were meant to serve. This scenario not only characterizes ANAP but many other local forces. By this, I mean that often these forces were exposed to high levels of corruption and human rights abuses.
With the takeover of the Taliban, where did these armed groups go? Are they organizing some silent resistance to the Taliban, or were they immediately recruited for the service of the new territorial organization of the Taliban? At the moment, we don’t know. What we do know, however, is that actually, at the state level, the local national force is in the hands of the Taliban army, which at the same time has the unique authority to rule the government.
The Taliban leaders are turning their insurgent forces into a modern army equipped with US-made military gear. Moreover, they renamed all eight military corps of Afghanistan and appointed new key provincial governors. According to Muhammad Ahsas, a well-informed authority of the Taliban, Afghanistan has been divided into 34 provinces administratively into two branches: South and South-East. The South comprises 14 provinces, and Umari rules it; the South-East comprises the remaining 20 provinces and is administered by Haqqani. They also established 18 commissions in which the biggest and most significant is the military commission. The main goal of this commission is the creation of the Taliban grand army that will include officers and troops who served the old regime and probably also people from the previous local armed forces.
Even though the Taliban’s finances remain unclear, the new army will take control of 300,000 light arms, 26,000 heavy weapons and about 61,000 military vehicles left by the August 31 withdrawal of the US-led forces in the country. Pilots, engineers, service persons, logistical and administrative staff are also included in the formation of this new army, the only one that the government could afford, Taliban officials told. The ideology behind the project is the search for a “pureness” of the military, which means that soldiers, officials, and senior commanders will be considered trustworthy and face a series of tests to verify if they can actually be considered as such. Since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Taliban officials had purged nearly 4,5000 unwanted people from its ranks, primarily new recruits blamed for the spate of crime.
Extremist local forces at the sub-state level
The most known armed extremist groups are affiliated with Al-Qaeda (AQ) leadership and Daesh. Since 2001, the core AQ leadership has been a primary US target in Afghanistan. Even though, AQ after 2001, found more fertile ground outside Afghanistan like in Iraq, Yemen and Libya. AQ follows Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam that insists on the “armed” jihad to mobilize its conception of Islam. It can be better designated as a network rather than a group. This network always depicted their fight as a profoundly moral one, a defensive jihad against Western civilization to protect the Islamic world—an utopian, abstract and eschatological goal.
The other armed extremist group is Daesh, but unlike AQ, it is not entirely clear who they are fighting against. One interpretation would be that while AQ focuses on a distant enemy, Daesh focuses on a local enemy and has a more pragmatic objective: the formation of a state. (The reason why in this article, I use “Daesh” instead of IS, ISIS, or ISISL is that in practical terms, a state doesn’t exist). The difference between AQ and Daesh is strategic and tactical because it changes the definition of who they are defending themselves against corrupted Arab regimes on the one hand and western ones on the other. In Afghanistan, Daesh announced the formation of its Afghan affiliate in 2014 known as ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan and intensely criticized Taliban relations with China, Russia and the US.
ISKP has a hostile relationship with the Taliban due to its more extreme version of Islam. It wants to establish a Caliphate while the Taliban an Emirate in the country. The Taliban and ISKP will try to project themselves as the authentic representative of Islam and use that narrative as a recruitment and expansion strategy. Nevertheless, experts have said that rivalry between the two is likely to be confined to a protracted guerrilla-style conflict with direct battles and clashes instead of transforming into a civil war.
Despite the considerable fragmentation and constellation of the military outlook of Afghanistan, the Taliban are a cohesive insurgent movement with consultative leadership and multiple centres of power. Of course, there have been internal tension and clashes, but as a whole, the campaign has displayed the ability to control these conflicts and remain solid. Its leadership has demonstrated the capacity to articulate the movement’s red lines, develop consensus around policies that do not cross them and essentially enforce them
While Afghanistan’s new Taliban leadership has been preoccupied with forming a new government and creating a unique and grand army, the constellation of armed forces at the rural and non-state level would be the scenario the Taliban have to deal with. All these groups will find themselves less vulnerable to monitoring and targeting by the US. Moreover, they will be able to take advantage of the vast pool of skilled and armed labour drawn from former Taliban, Afghan forces and other military actors. Extremist groups other than the Taliban do not need any external support, making Afghanistan comfortable, a safe haven for extremists. The future is uncertain; what it is not is that, unfortunately, the end of violence in the country has a long journey before stopping. Taliban must necessarily confront other armed groups to create their own army, which will necessarily lead to an escalation of violence. We don’t know to what extent.