The South Asia Channel

The once and future civil war in Afghanistan

There is talk of civil war in the mountains of Khost, the fields of the Helmand River Valley, and on the streets of Kabul. With 2014 looming, Afghans, journalists, diplomats, and military officers alike are wondering what the future holds for this troubled country straddling the Hindu Kush. Will there be civil war or not? ...


There is talk of civil war in the mountains of Khost, the fields of the Helmand River Valley, and on the streets of Kabul. With 2014 looming, Afghans, journalists, diplomats, and military officers alike are wondering what the future holds for this troubled country straddling the Hindu Kush.

Will there be civil war or not? In a recent report I co-authored with Scott Bates for the Center for National Policy, we pointed to civil war and the related problem of security force fragmentation as two of the biggest risks Afghanistan faces. Dexter Filkins penned a persuasive essay in the New Yorker full of vivid details about the factional and ethnic rivalries within the Afghan National Army (ANA) and among its glut of militias. One of his interview subjects memorably remarked:

This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government. Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don’t happen, you can burn my bones when I die.

Another journalist, Robert Dreyfuss, insists that such dire predictions are foolhardy. Citing Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to France and Canada, Omar Samad, he argues that Afghans will look into the abyss, lean back, and compromise.

However, people on both sides of this debate are missing the forest for the trees. This misperception begins with our collective failure to take Afghanistan’s history seriously.

We often act and talk as if Afghan history began on 9/11, but our reaction to al Qaeda’s attacks was an intervention in a long-standing and still-unresolved civil war.

It began over thirty years ago, when the Khalq faction of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the regime of President Mohammad Daud Khan in 1978 and instituted a series of far-reaching radical reforms that sparked rebellion across the country. Against their better judgment, the Soviets occupied the country in support of their beleaguered communist allies, inflaming conflict, which saw seven main mujahideen parties supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a host of Arab volunteers pitted against the Soviets and the PDPA, who were also divided into two factions.

The mujahideen parties fought each other almost as much as the infidels. The "national" character of these parties was always a screen for a myriad of local conflicts over water, land, tribe, sect, ethnicity, prestige and power. 

The Afghan civil war can be divided into different phases. The first was the nascent period of unorganized rebellion that followed the overthrow of Daud Khan. The second phase witnessed the gradual organization of the rebels into the Peshawar Seven and the introduction of Soviet troops. These troops withdrew in 1989 and the mujahideen parties turned on each other along with various quasi-government militias, marking the third phase. The regime of President Najibullah held onto pockets of the country and Kabul. Then the Afghan security forces buckled as Soviet largess vanished into history. Kabul fell in 1992 and the mujahideen continued to fight each other for supremacy, beginning the fourth phase.  The Afghans looked into the abyss and jumped straight in.

The fifth phase saw the Taliban – a movement led by mujahideen veterans – storm through the south, take Kabul, and come to a stalemate with the Northern Alliance, a coalition dominated by members of Jamiat-i-Islami. The sixth phase began with Western intervention and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Kabul in response to 9/11. And the current phase has witnessed a return to rebellion, with the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, and Jalaluddin Haqqani’s network battling the American-supported regime. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency has reprised its role in the Soviet-Afghan War, now sponsoring and directing rebellion against an American-led coalition.

The leaders of the current rebel movements are rooted in the Peshawar Seven. Taliban leader Mullah Omar fought the Soviets in the south as a part of Harakat-i Inqilab-i Islami. Gulbuddin, an old rival of Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been causing trouble ever since he took to throwing acid at the faces of unveiled women and brawling with rival student activists at the University of Kabul in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His Hizb-i-Islami fought Jamiat-i-Islami and others for control of Kabul in the early 1990s. Haqqani cut his teeth fighting Daud Khan in the 1970s and as a mujahideen commander under Mohammad Yunus Khalis in the 1980s.

And we see the same cast of characters elsewhere. The same mujahideen and government officials who were fighting for God and/or country, selling narcotics, and committing atrocities since the 1970s are some of our closest friends and allies in the war’s current phase.

There are differences in scale between these phases in terms of ferocity of combat and destruction, flows of internally displaced persons and refugees, as well as the numbers of casualties. Estimates of casualty and, to a lesser extent, refugee figures in the last thirty years of war vary widely.

In 1978, an estimated 40,000 Afghans were killed, followed by 80,000 in 1979. By 1987, less than a decade after the Soviets entered the conflict directly between 1 and 1.5 million Afghans had been killed in the war. This represents about 9% of the entire Afghan population, which is higher proportionally than the deaths suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II. Losses were more than twice as high among refugees, who were often more vulnerable to attack, disease, infection, and starvation than those who remained in their villages. By the Soviet withdrawal, there were 6.2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan.

During the 1990s, estimates of civilians killed range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands as the mujahideen fought over territory. Much of Kabul was reduced to rubble as various mujahideen commanders fought from neighborhood to neighborhood.

In 2001, different tallies claim somewhere between several thousand and 20,000 Afghans were killed as a result of the American-led intervention. Casualties dipped between 2002 and 2005. Since 2006, over 12,000 Afghan civilians have been killed due to the war. Most of these have been killed by the insurgency. These figures were increasing over the last few years, but have dropped in 2012. Regardless, they still pale in comparison to the 80s and likely the early and mid-1990s as well. More than 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, but 2.5 million Afghan refugees remain, mostly in neighboring countries.

But war is not only a balance sheet of death and destruction. It is a political activity in which force is assessed to be an appropriate means by which to pursue political interests.

The underlying political disagreements, factional rivalries, toxic personalities, and Pakistani interventions and proxies that have been driving war in Afghanistan remain unresolved. The modern bureaucratic system that Western technocrats have willed into existence has not sufficiently vested Afghans in non-violent politics. Afghanistan is already divided into fiefdoms. An ocean of money and the American-led occupation force are all that holds them all together. Both will soon get much smaller.

So the question of whether or not Afghanistan will devolve into civil war after 2014 is the wrong one. The civil war will, of course, only continue. The question is, what will the next phase look like and how can we shape it for the better?

The greatest risk and most likely outcome is the fragmentation of the Afghan National Security Forces. The biggest danger is posed by the divisions within the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) destabilizing the larger security force institutions. Most of the personnel in both of these forces are deployed in or near their home districts.

And like politics, all civil war is local.

The Nahr-e-Saraj police force in Helmand, for example, is divided between competing narcotics thugs, former Hizb-i-Islami fighters, former communists, and their children all of whom share a history of rivalry, murder, war, and hatred that have barely been contained over the last several years.  Different ALP militias in Central Helmand also hail from different factions. Once their special operations mentors withdraw, they may begin to clash with each other, the ANP, and the ANA.

As long as the United States and its allies stay abreast of these factional politics, they can mitigate — but not avoid — this fragmentation through proactive in-country diplomacy, firm mentoring, and appropriate mechanisms for the distribution of funding and supplies. ALP militias must be integrated into the Afghan National Police now rather than later. As the ALP force currently stands, it poses an unacceptable risk to the long-term integrity of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

The trouble is, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not been systemically mapping these factional conflicts down to the local level and incorporating this information into their planning. ISAF, the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, and the US Embassy in Kabul should create a large and mobile cell of officers, diplomats, aid officials, analysts. This cell would be tasked with traveling around Afghanistan and achieving a granular understanding of the local conflicts that are driving the war and threaten to tear the ANSF and the country apart.

What will the next phase of civil war hold? How many will die? Despite the thousands dead over the last decade, the current phase pales in comparison to the 80s and early 90s. Afghans may come to remember the last ten years as the orange slice in the middle of the soccer match. Some in Washington and London have vested hope in negotiations, but there is little evidence for optimism on that front.

Afghanistan is no longer a counterinsurgency problem. Most foreign troops will be heading for the exits over the next two years. Only by taking its politics and history seriously down to the local level will we be able to help ensure sufficient stability as the International Security Assistance Force itself becomes history.

Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy.

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