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The Next ISIS Moment: Afghanistan’s Impending Catastrophe

The Kashmir musk deer is a curious creature. Unlike its American brethren, it’s endangered, elusive and adorned with fangs. Scientists were therefore excited to announce that they had recently spotted the first such animal in Afghanistan since 1948. Americans collectively raised an eyebrow in mild interest upon hearing the news. This is certainly more attentiveness and care than they have recently shown the US-led war in the deer’s homeland. Indeed, the aging Afghanistan conflict has been entirely absent from political discourse of late, an unusual and regrettable omission for a Midterm year. But given the rise of ISIS — an Islamist specter that jeopardizes American nation-building in Iraq — not talking about Afghanistan is also downright stupid.

The difference in scrutiny paid to ISIS versus the Afghan Taliban can be traced along simple distinctions. ISIS is brand-new, brutal and fast-paced. In short, it has all the sexiness required for media focus, and rightly so. The Afghanistan conflict, however, is a gloomy quagmire characterized by a grinding, 13-year-old counterinsurgency effort. While the two initially seem different enough, it’s remarkable that no pundit has seen Afghanistan’s future in Iraq’s present. The first portentous parallel arrives wrapped up in an army uniform: Iraq’s armed forces melted at the sight of ISIS and Afghanistan’s NATO-trained soldiers may very well do the same. Taliban attacks recently reached their highest level in three years, as insurgents gear up for impending coalition troop withdrawals. Given that the number of US military personnel in Afghanistan will sharply drop to just under 10,000 by 2015, it’s unclear that the Afghan National Security Forces will have the ability to fight off this latest onslaught. They are already taking substantial casualties, with General John Campbell, top US commander in Afghanistan, recently revealing that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) hemorrhaged “7,000 to 9,000” dead or wounded over the last year. The ANSF is also hampered by high rates of attrition, illiteracy and corruption, making its post-NATO future extremely dubious.

In fact, there is reason to believe that things are even worse than the aforementioned figures suggest. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) decided to classify its most recent executive summary on the $61 billion training effort of Afghan troops. ISAF has previously withheld parts of its report, but always provided a cohesive view of the US mission. Now it has obscured any broader conclusions, indicating that there is no good news to be found. Without accurate and up-to-date information on the ANSF, Americans are oblivious to the precarious position in which NATO forces will leave Afghanistan. As in Iraq, such ignorance will give way to shock and dismay when the Afghan government finds itself teetering on the brink of catastrophe. The West must understand that Afghanistan’s military situation may devolve to ISIS-like levels if its current trajectory continues.

But the ANSF is only one part of the larger equation. Internecine divisions and sectarian strife dominate Afghanistan’s political climate. As Mili Mitra wrote for the Brown Political Review last month, the country has just emerged from a highly contentious presidential election. The two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, belong to the Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups, respectively. When the election results came down to a slim margin, both camps lodged bitter accusations of fraud that dragged on for weeks. While Ghani ultimately triumphed — thereby continuing the long legacy of Pashtun rule — and wrangled a power-sharing agreement out of Abdullah, their hazardous contest encapsulates the tribalism that makes Afghanistan nearly ungovernable. It will be immensely difficult for Ghani to establish control over a country where local loyalties often trump any regard for national unity. His ability to command a strong opposition to Taliban militants may be critically undermined by Afghanistan’s internal divisions and centrifugal qualities.

Ominously, these problems indicate that Afghanistan’s political scene could end up looking a lot like Iraq’s, where Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went to great lengths to exclude Sunnis from the cabinet and the government in general. In everything from sharing oil revenue to increasing Sunni participation in the Army, al-Maliki proved that his commitment to pluralistic democracy was nominal at best. So when ISIS gained a foothold in Iraq, many Sunnis, although not extremists themselves, were sufficiently alienated by the Shia-dominated state to give tacit support to ISIS. In the words of Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, al-Maliki “played right into [ISIS’s] hands.” Similarly, Afghanistan’s numerous sectarian divisions may mean that government power-holders will spurn some groups in favor of others, whether inadvertently or intentionally. Considering Afghanistan’s standing as the third most corrupt country in the world, this is a more than plausible projection. The situation is therefore ripe for tribal rent-seeking, an activity that has no happy ending – if factions continually jockey for power, Afghanistan will be rendered ungovernable and the Taliban will be able to reassert itself. Of course, it’s also possible that one group could gain unrivalled governmental power, make heavy-handed use of it, incite rebellion, and enable the Taliban to capitalize on the resulting disarray and dismay. In both cases, terrorists get the upper hand, revealing the immense difficulty of fighting a counterinsurgency while grappling with internecine conflict. Iraq learned this lesson, and Afghanistan may become the next pupil.

ISIS and the Afghan Taliban are similar in their livelihoods as well as their origins, since both groups derive funding from sustained, lucrative enterprises. The former makes over $1 million dollars per day by selling black-market oil from captured oilfields. Comparably, the Taliban’s principal revenue stream is opium, from which they earn $200 million annually. The pernicious mainstay that is Afghan opioid production has massive implications; as John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, declared before Congress in January,

In sum, the expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs is one of the most significant factors putting the entire US and international donor investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. All of the fragile gains we have made over the last twelve years on women’s issues, health, education, rule of law and governance are now, more than ever, in jeopardy of being wiped out by the narcotics trade which not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption.

Amply funded, it seems that the Taliban are well placed to replicate ISIS’ success. At the very least, substantial illicit income ensures that the Taliban will remain a live threat well after the US withdrawal. If Afghanistan’s government — hobbled by corruption and infighting — is unable to counter the insurgents’ wherewithal, drug trafficking may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the current regime.

Across the military, political, and financial realms, Afghanistan seems to posses much the same conditions that begat ISIS in Iraq. Yet when ISIS began beheading Westerners, the only question on everyone’s mind was, “how do we stop them?” While this is obviously an important inquiry, it’s nonetheless backed by a panicked mentality that smacks of jumping from crisis to crisis. Therefore, in order to break the chain of unexpected setbacks in the war on terror, America needs to be more forward thinking — now that we’ve started to bomb ISIS and assist Baghdad, we should be asking ourselves, “how do we stop the same thing from happening in Afghanistan?”  But as long as the top story about Afghanistan revolves around the Kashmir musk deer, we’re not asking the right questions. Instead, the West is heading straight towards another catastrophe.