The retreat from Musa Qala is not "strategic withdrawal"

The power of the Afghan central government is on the decline

February 25, 2016
 Afghan security forces patrol in Nad Ali district of Helmand province, Afghanistan. 22nd December 2015 ©Abdul Khaliq/AP/Press Association Images
Afghan security forces patrol in Nad Ali district of Helmand province, Afghanistan. 22nd December 2015 ©Abdul Khaliq/AP/Press Association Images
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Following months of teetering, Afghan and Nato officials reported on Saturday that the last Afghan forces had withdrawn from the town of Musa Qala in the country's southern Helmand province.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 base of the family of Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, Governor of Helmand from 2001-5. Sources in Helmand report that both Sher Mohammad and President Hamid Karzai are still trying to exert their influence in the province against the government of Ashraf Ghani. (Akhundzada repeatedly financed anti-government elements during the period 2005-14, as a way of undermining British control in the province).

Additionally, Helmand is an important opium-growing region. The Taliban considers the Helmand in general a strategic province for this reason—whoever controls the lucrative poppy-growing areas is not just able to tax the farmers, but can negotiate deals with the drug traders and offer access in exchange for protection money. Symbolically, the defeat of Afghan security forces in Helmand, the area where they are most concentrated, would also represent a decisive victory for the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council, no matter whether they had anything to do with it or not. Perception trumps reality in Afghanistan.

Alarm about the deteriorating situation led Nato to announce on 9th February that it was sending a US battalion to Helmand to protect their special forces in the region and to stiffen the resolve of the Afghan forces. Why then, two weeks later, have Afghan army units withdrawn, and what implications does this have for future control of the province?

According to General Murad Ali Murad, the decision was taken to withdraw Afghan troops from their defensive positions in the most disputed districts and to “prepare them for an aggressive role in the coming year” by reinforcing bases elsewhere in the province. The withdrawal had reportedly been planned “weeks ago,” with US support, and was designed to “collapse closer towards a defensible line along the Helmand river.” Other officials, however, said the decision was made to avoid further casualties because the army units were under severe pressure from the Taliban, making reinforcement and resupply difficult—the same reason that the British pulled out of Musa Qala in 2006.

The move also reflected a longer-term demand from Nato, which has been advising a smaller ANDSF footprint for well over a year. Nato advisers reportedly want Afghan soldiers to spend less time manning checkpoints and more taking the fight to Taliban militants, a key tactical shift the coalition hopes will enable local forces to quell a rising insurgency. As Brigadier-General Wilson Shoffner, spokesman for Nato’s Resolute Support Mission put it, “They’ve got way too many soldiers on checkpoints.” Ironically, this is the path that Nato set them on in the first place. A report by the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan in February 2015 outlined that without divestment, the costs incurred were estimated to create a $110m sustainment burden for ANDSF; an amount that the US was no longer prepared to fund.

The simple fact is that Afghan forces cannot defend every area. Since the 1800s the central government in Kabul has been trying to tame the periphery in an attempt to gain a Weberian monopoly on violence. History would suggest that this is unlikely to succeed. Some in Helmand now fear that the government will concentrate its forces around crucial territories—the provincial capital, the main highway and the hydroelectric dam in Kajaki district. Though an uncomfortable reality, it has been recognised among policymakers for a number of years that following the transition of power in the country from Nato-led forces back to Afghan forces, the Taliban were likely to regain control of large swathes of the south and the east: areas where anti-government sentiment is strong.

Afghan forces cannot be in all places at once. Dynamics in Afghanistan are best described as centre-periphery, and the degree to which the central government in Kabul controls the periphery depends upon its power. This power has been on the decline, in lockstep with Nato’s “transition.” And while Afghan forces are likely to renew their efforts to protect crucial territories in Helmand and, in particular, around the capital Lashkar Gah, it is a sticking plaster. The fall of Helmand province would be a symbolic military failure. But it would be one rooted in the historical status quo.