The power of the Afghan central government is on the declineby Mike Martin , Emily Winterbotham / February 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Paul Wolfowtiz: When should we intervene?
Following months of teetering, Afghan and Nato officials reported on Saturday that the last Afghan forces had withdrawn from the town of Musa Qala in the country’s southern Helmand province. Sound familiar? Like much of the news from Afghanistan, it is cyclical: Musa Qala “fell” to the Taliban in August last year, but was then recaptured. This latest “news” means that the Taliban is now reported to control, or be fighting in, at least 10 of Helmand’s 14 districts. An Afghan intelligence source touted an even higher figure: “the Taliban controls around 98 per cent of the province” (although it must be said that government officials regularly inflate figures to solicit Nato support).
The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) are clearly struggling to fight off a resurgent Taliban and the withdrawal has triggered fears that government control could be lost in the rest of the province. Though representing a symbolic military failure, particularly to the UK and United States who invested so many lives there, there is a clear need for an approach based on the realities of the situation in Afghanistan: namely that many areas outside of big towns and main trading routes, particularly in places like Helmand, do not want to be under government control.
The deeper context is that the conflict in Helmand is not a two-sided battle between the government and the Taliban, but a far more complex conflict between tribal groups for power and access to the lucrative drugs trade. The battle with the Taliban is just another dimension—the current leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour recruits from the Ishaqzai tribe and Abdul Qayyum Zakir, his long-term rival for the leadership and member of the Taliban’s executive council, generates support among the Alizai (although there are a myriad of other clan and drug network based factions). International actors have been repeatedly drawn into these local tribal rivalries by the ability of the Afghan government to frame the conflict in dichotomous terms.
Though of little strategic importance, Musa Qala was a former Taliban stronghold. At the same time, it is also the…