Christopher Kolenda, senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, answers questions from CGP senior fellow Kamran Bokhari on current political and security conditions in Afghanistan. Kolenda, who has first-hand experience in fighting alongside Afghan forces, discusses the government forces’ capabilities and challenges as well as the militant landscape in Afghanistan and how regional interests shape the situation in the country.
Kolenda says the main militant groups in Afghanistan are the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and a handful of other actors. The Islamic State’s Afghan franchise is trying to gain a strong foothold in the country and has claimed responsibility for recent high-profile suicide bombings. Many members are disillusioned Taliban fighters who decided to join the Islamic State. The Afghan Taliban are the government’s main opponent — and though some try to say that all Taliban fighters are from Pakistan, Kolenda says there are plenty of Afghan Taliban fighters. Moreover, in some areas, residents prefer the Taliban to Afghan government forces and cooperate with the militants more easily. Al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan as well, and has maintained a tenuous relationship with the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban’s focus is disruption in Pakistan and Afghanistan, not ruling Afghanistan.
On an international level, Kolenda says, Afghanistan remains important to numerous Asian powers. The longstanding rivalry between Pakistan and Afghanistan has led Islamabad to seek influence over its neighbor. Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are on many different levels, from cultural to geopolitical. For instance, Tehran wants to support Kabul in order to balance Saudi Arabia’s support for Pakistan. Russia, in the meantime, wants to curtail the spillover of any militant violence from Afghanistan into the Central Asian countries.
Afghanistan’s internal situation remains volatile. Kolenda says a power-sharing deal is not likely to end the conflict; historically, such deals in Afghanistan have led to more wars. But at some point, the war — the longest in American history — will have to end, even if it takes a protracted process of negotiations among international, national-level and local-level groups.