There is a growing consensus that a civil conflict is becoming increasingly likely as the US leaves Afghanistan, and it could very well suck in neighbouring countries.
The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, says Afghan government forces will face “a bad possible outcome” against the Taliban once international troops withdraw. Afghan officials too are warning that the Taliban “are preparing for war”.
Both the United Nations and NATO Resolute Support speak of a much higher rise in civilian casualties in the first quarter of this year, with the Taliban responsible for over 50 percent of the rise.
Military experts predict civil war and it may well be far more bloody than the 1990s as the Taliban try to consolidate their position with or without a peace deal.
While the entire country is under threat, the danger could be more acute in areas where there's a history of Taliban enmity with Hazara, Uzbek but also Tajik populations, covering well over half of Afghanistan. There is a possibility that the chaos may bring in neighbouring countries, adding to regional turmoil.
While Russia, Pakistan and Iran are all jubilant about the US forces leaving they are justifiably also concerned about their border security and have already held consultative talks.
The fear is a repeat of the bloody wars of summer 1998 when the Taliban made their final push to capture Mazar-e-Sharif and allegedly “massacred thousands of Hazaras”. That was retaliation for the alleged killing of some 2,000 Taliban in 1997 for which Taliban leader Mulla Manon Niazi, blamed Hazaras.
But also involved were forces loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum, with allegations of “summary executions of the Taliban prisoners”. Dostum, of Uzbek ethnicity and now a Marshal in the Afghan army, fled to Uzbekistan.
Iran was dragged in too. Eight officials at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and an Iranian journalist were killed by the Taliban. Many Tajiks and Hazaras under fire took refuge in Iran, as did the renowned Tajik commander of Herat, General Ismail Khan.
Iran – which hosts three million Afghans – never recognised the Taliban government but it did recently hold meetings with Taliban leader Mullah Baradar.
Tehran, aware that the Taliban is winning the war, is calling for a broad-based government to ensure the inclusion of Hazara and Tajiks in any future government.
But if the Taliban refuse or indeed attack Hazaras and Tajiks near its border, Iran is likely to get involved through supporting local commanders.
Hazaras feel particularly vulnerable and will no doubt consult Iran and prepare. The Fatemiyoun Brigade, a dominantly Shia Hazara group, trained and nurtured by the IRGC’s Quds Force could get involved.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade has an estimated 20,000 trained militia – many were based in Syria – but Iran says they have mostly disarmed and are living amongst the civilian population.
Iran will support the Hazaras but not by direct incursions. Rather, it will use the doctrine of the slain Quds Force leader, Qasem Soleimani, which works through the loyalty of proxy groups. Photographs of Hazara militia with Soleimani and the military anthem they composed in his memory called “Children of Hadj Qassem” reveals this devotion.
Soleimani’s deputy, Gen. Esmail Qaani, who is now the leader of the Quds Force, has been the main coordinator for Afghanistan since early 1990s.
In December 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, offered the Fatemiyoun Brigade to the Afghan government to fight against Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) which continues to launch attacks mainly against Hazaras, some in volatile border areas.
There is wide skepticism in Afghanistan about Iran’s motives but on the official level Tehran has held good relations with Kabul. Yet it has a network of mainly Tajik and Hazara political players too. The IRGC’s construction conglomerate, Khatam al-Anbia, has expanded that network into the economy of Afghanistan, completing several road and rail projects which link Iran to Afghanistan.
The commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, warned that a US withdrawal would leave Afghan security forces without vital support.
The US and its allies have also failed to improve the fundamental problems of poverty, endemic corruption, narcotics, unemployment and warlordism.
President Joe Biden may churn out the usual American spin about “mission accomplished” but facts on the ground paint a different picture.
The Taliban is far stronger now than in 2001 and women’s rights as vulnerable as ever. Those warlords, and terror groups and proxies are all still there preparing for war.
Afghan politicians, must take responsibility too. They have tried but failed to use the opportunity to develop a workable political structure with political parties and democratic institutions. They never dealt with warlordism and corruption, and many of them contributed to it.
And they are still deeply divided despite the looming dangers.
That simultaneous failure in the political and military arena is what has increased the chances of civil war and it is the main reason why the Taliban, irrespective of the planned talks in Istanbul, will continue to fight to the end.
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