The Afghan conflict shows the issues foreign troups have to face when they occupy a country, in spite of their technological superiority. At the moment, recent attempts at peace negotiation between American troups in place and the Taliban have given Kabul hope of a ceasefire, while fights were being led ever since the outbreak of Washington’s “fight against terrorism” in 2001. However, this state of war can only come to an end when the question of Afghan national identity is resolved.

A country deprived of national ethnicity

“There isn’t a stone that hasn’t been stained with blood,” said Lieutenant General Molesworth at the time of Afghan independence in 1919. The nation’s borders were determined in 1893 by the Durand Line, adopted by British settlers. Tribal areas were demarcated as well. These autonomous areas are home to highly interdependent fundamentalist networks. The inhabitants of these tribes seek already largely acquired autarky. They come from the Pashtun people, an Iranian-speaking ethnic group. These traditionalist populations, located on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, were scattered in these countries by the demarcation drawn by the Brits. However, the latter was supposed to federate them on the basis of these clan territories. This complexity can be explained by the historical decentralization of Pakistan, which is multi-ethnic, like its Sunni neighbour. Afghanistan includes 40% Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shiites.

The Soviet withdrawal caused by the Afghan Islamic resistance gave birth to the Taliban movement in 1994. The Taliban are Pashtun peasants opposed to the demarcations decided in the 19th century. They controlled Kabul from 1996 to 2001.

The intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) after 11/9 made it possible to restore a power perceived by these Talibans as “the puppet of the United States”. They believe that Afghanistan should become a Pashtun sanctuary under tribal law. Today, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan are still influenced by this connection between ethnicity and religion. Rural people value their traditional Islam, while city dwellers, less exposed to Taliban influence, accept multi-ethnicity.


Patrol of an Afghan soldier in the capital Kabul, Jalil Rezayee, EPA, 3 August 2017. The photograph was published by Jim Michaels on the Mansfield News Journal website, 15 December 2019.

The failure of the Afghan State, incubator of terrorist networks

The Pashtun people remain separated by a border: Pakistan favours the Kashmiris against India rather than the Taliban. The latter are trying to attract the Pakistani Pashtun minority in order to establish a fully Pashtun state. The prevalence of Islamic custom among the Taliban motivated the export of fighters to Afghanistan.

For instance, the Shiite minority was the target of a terrorist attack on 6 March by “Khorassan”, the Afghan Islamic State which appeared in 2015. Khorassan believes that the Pashtun ethnic group should impose an exclusively Sunni Islam. Its attacks are characterised by anti-Shiism that tries to increase interethnic tensions that are supposed to weaken the other camps. Its dangerousness prompted the United Nations (UN) to classify it as “terrorist” by a resolution in January.

The group is spreading abroad and includes Iraqi and Syrian veterans. The Taliban, more moderate, invokes the Pashtun cause as well, but never attacks religious minorities, which are very marginal in Afghanistan.


Taliban militants, defectors of the Islamic State in Afghanistan “Khorassan”, end 2015. Original photograph by Boris Rozhin, published on the blog “Colonel Cassad”, 6 December 2015.

Heated discussions, the sign of America’s defeat in Afghanistan

This complex violent context emphasizes tensions surrounding the Doha Agreement signed on 27 February by Americans and the Taliban, who have been negotiating for peace since 2018. Although the 9 days truce agreed with the Taliban has been lifted, the Taliban have pledged not to attack NATO forces deployed since 2001. They are now attacking Afghan troops only. The resumption of attacks was motivated by the refusal to exchange prisoners. This prompted NATO to carry out a “defensive strike” on 4 March on Taliban positions.

The Taliban’s general staff understands peace according to its own requirements. Indeed, the team of negotiators proposed by Kabul, which included former warlords, was rejected. They demand Abdullah Abdullah, a supporter of a parliamentary regime. This change of heart led the government to offer the release of 1,500 Taliban in early April, instead of the 100 suggested by the UN. This offer was rejected by the Taliban on 7 April: “We sent a technical team to the Kabul’s Commission for Prisoners to identify our detainees. Unfortunately their release has always been delayed until now. Our technical team will no longer participate in pointless meetings”. However, this issue is a prerequisite for further consultations.

The Taliban need recognition. A return by force would be doomed to failure. Their participation in a government of national unity seems to be the only option. As of now, their operations continue. They would be active in 60% of the territory.

Endless conflict leads to disasters

Insurgent groups are becoming more visible: Khorassan, which found refuge in Afghanistan, is increasing its attacks on minorities. The country seems very weakened, as shown by the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the number of tests is low and the repatriation of refugees compromises containment.

The pandemic prevents the withdrawal of multinational forces. Under the Doha compromise, Washington has committed to withdrawing 16,000 NATO personnel by mid-2021 and 12,000 US soldiers by the end of the year.

A historical domestic problem

Peace in Afghanistan seems to be forever postponed, despite the withdrawal of foreign units. The peace process remains sustained, as evidenced by the Indian Foreign Minister’s enthusiasm on 18 April during the visit of Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalizad.

Thus, the Pashtun question seems insoluble: the Taliban advances are not decisive, but an impending negotiation seems uncertain, despite a first exchange of prisoners on April 13. The majority of the Afghan “people” do not really understand this setback in the peace process, and this violence remains rooted in the simple mention of their country.

Photo credits: photograph by journalist Bryan Denton for the New York Times, taken from David E. Sanger’s article in the same newspaper, dated May 19, 2012.

You may also like