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Taliban Steps Up Divide And Conquer Strategy In Afghanistan


Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani

On the battlefield, the Taliban is ratcheting up attacks aimed at overrunning Afghanistan’s battered security forces and seizing vulnerable towns and cities from the government.

On the political front, the Taliban is trying to undercut support for the fragile Afghan government by co-opting disgruntled members of the country's political elite.

Observers say the militant group’s two-pronged strategy is designed to bring down the elected government in Kabul, which the Taliban views as a Western "puppet." The militants have ruled out joining the current political system in any peace deal.

“The Taliban is pursuing two interlinked objectives: to create a military and political domino effect to topple the Afghan government,” says Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.

“The Taliban cannot attain victory in a war of attrition,” adds Moradian. “But its chances are much higher if it can prompt the political disintegration of the Afghan government followed by or in synergy with inflicting a major military blow.”

Afghans flee their villages during an ongoing large-scale attack by the Taliban in Helmand Province on May 4.
Afghans flee their villages during an ongoing large-scale attack by the Taliban in Helmand Province on May 4.

If successful on either front -- a military takeover or reaching a political settlement on palatable terms -- the Islamist group would gain a significant chunk of power in Kabul.

The Taliban has stepped up its tactics since U.S. and other NATO forces announced last month that they would completely withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11.

The foreign military pullout is expected to further undermine Kabul's government and undercut Afghanistan’s 300,000-strong national army and police force, which have relied heavily on U.S. support to keep the Taliban at bay.

Divide And Conquer

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat who has been in power since 2014, has sidelined many of the country’s key power brokers, including powerful former warlords who hold significant sway in the provinces.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghan former jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf, and Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah attend a ceremony together in 2017.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghan former jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf, and Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah attend a ceremony together in 2017.

Observers say the Taliban has sought to exploit those divisions during the sputtering peace process.

Intra-Afghan peace talks that began in September have made little progress, hampered by deep mistrust, soaring militant violence, and a huge gulf between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives on key issues.

In what observers say is an attempt to divide and conquer the Afghan political elite, the Taliban last week sent private letters to various political, tribal, and ethnic leaders to engage them directly and individually in peace talks.

The Taliban’s aim, observers say, is to pursue separate accommodations with different power brokers and further isolate Ghani.

Among those who received a letter from the Taliban was Abdullah Abdullah, who has a long-running rivalry with Ghani. Twice Ghani’s challenger for the presidential post, Abdullah heads Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, a body that oversees the peace talks with the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) and his main political rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) and his main political rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Abdullah's spokesman, Faraidon Khawzon, said the letters were designed to “create discord” but insisted the government “is unified.”

Orzala Nemat, a researcher on Afghanistan, says the weaker Afghanistan's political elite becomes the stronger the Taliban will grow.

“The political leadership in Afghanistan has to be as inclusive as possible so that there isn't any room for anyone externally or even the Taliban to reach separate agreements with power brokers,” she says.

“We are in the midst of a violent conflict,” she adds. “But we are also in a public relations battle in which the Taliban is making attempts to infiltrate the political elite.”

‘Imperial Presidency’

Despite claims of harmony, cracks have emerged among Afghan elites.

Key political figures have privately or publicly called for Ghani to step down and a neutral interim government that includes the Taliban to take over.

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That transitional authority could pave the way for a political settlement, proponents say. But critics say the idea -- privately supported by the Taliban -- is being backed by disgruntled power brokers who are keen to regain a stake in the government.

Ghani has vehemently rejected the idea of resigning and came up with a counterproposal that called for a temporary “government of peace” and early elections in which he promised not to run. The offer was quickly rejected by the Taliban, which sees elections as a foreign import.

Critics have even accused Ghani and his allies of stalling the peace process to retain power.

Observers say Ghani, a divisive leader who has few remaining allies, has aggravated rather than soothed divisions among the fractured political elite.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leade, sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29, 2020.
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leade, sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29, 2020.

“Afghanistan's imperial presidency has caused the concentration of all power within a very small circle around the president,” says Moradian. “Ghani's political agenda and style of governance have compounded the situation.”

Ghani’s position was dented after the United States bypassed Kabul and signed a bilateral peace deal with the Taliban in 2020.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision last month to unconditionally withdraw all American troops from the country has further undermined Ghani and emboldened his foes.

Fluid Allegiances

Ghani’s political opposition is dominated by former warlords, many of them ex-leaders of the mujahedin, the Western-backed Islamist groups that fought the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later the Taliban.

During the country’s brutal civil war from 1992-96, rival mujahedin factions turned against each other after ousting the leftist regime in Kabul. They fought pitched battles for control of Kabul, killing up to 100,000 people and destroying much of the capital.

The former strongmen received high-ranking roles within the government in a nod to national unity after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. But under Ghani their power has waned.

In recent months, some former warlords have rearmed their old militias in defiance of the government as they jockey for a greater share of power.

Such moves also play into the hands of the Taliban.

Nemat says many of the former warlords have fluid allegiances that make their behavior unpredictable.

That could mean, she says, that the strongmen could be co-opted by the Taliban.

“What the last 40 years of war in Afghanistan tells us is that for these groups and individuals there is no rule or principle,” she says. “Those who fought each other in the 1990s are now working together.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a focus on politics, the Taliban insurgency, and human rights. He has reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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