Afghan Cities Become Key Battlegrounds
While Afghanistan has suffered from over three decades of unrelenting warfare, violence has primarily centered on its rural areas. Despite sporadic, devastating attacks, Afghanistan’s cities have long been considered relatively secure. That is no longer true. Cities have become deadly stages for cutthroat competition among an array of actors — chiefly, the central government, the Taliban, strongmen and their militias, and criminal networks. They have become a critically important and overlooked dimension of the country’s armed conflict.
This is driven by several complex, overlapping factors. The first is that the Taliban’s territorial influence has rapidly expanded, bringing the insurgency to the doorstep of major cities across the country — even to the capital of Kabul. The Taliban are now increasingly waging war inside urban areas, marking a clear shift in their strategy. In the past nine months, they appear to have escalated attacks aimed at eliminating potential sources of opposition to their rule, such as civil society activists and journalists.
Second, the fragile political settlement underpinning the post-2001 government is disintegrating. This political settlement was premised on the central government, then led by President Hamid Karzai, striking a series of resource sharing deals with major factional powerbrokers and other political actors. But the ongoing Afghan peace talks, which appear to have only emboldened the Taliban, have led these actors to re-evaluate their allegiance to the central government. The talks have also called the future of the Afghan government into question, as with the recent U.S. proposal to create an interim government to replace the Ghani-Abdullah administration.
Finally, a less obvious factor is the breakneck pace of urbanization in Afghanistan. The urban population doubled between 2001 and 2018. The government has struggled to keep up with the needs of the increasing urban population, and the flow of Afghans fleeing the Taliban in the countryside is compounding the crisis. Basic services have been strained to the breaking point, and the government’s ability to maintain order is rapidly diminishing, as evidenced by a sharp jump in urban crime.
Violence has spiked in Afghanistan’s cities. On top of continued high-profile, complex bomb attacks by the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province, targeted killings have sharply risen. These attacks have taken the lives of at least 65 human rights defenders and journalists since 2018. The majority of these attacks have occurred in major towns and cities — 21 of the victims were killed in Kabul. Responsibility is rarely claimed for such killings, particularly since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal in February 2020. There is, however, a growing consensus that the Taliban is behind many, if not the majority, of these killings.
These killings reflect a shift in the Taliban’s larger military strategy. While engaging in peace talks, the Taliban has repeatedly demonstrated that it is unwilling to abandon targeted violence in achieving its objectives. The insurgency has refrained from trying to capture any major urban centers since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal for fear of derailing America’s promise to withdraw its forces. The Taliban are nonetheless increasingly active in urban areas and their environs, seemingly hedging their bets and laying the groundwork to capture these locales in the future. They have encircled key cities across the country, capturing police checkpoints and controlling the roads ever closer to cities like Kandahar and Kabul, once bastions of government control.
The Taliban appears to be using targeted killings in cities to eradicate those most likely to vocally oppose them. Recent victims have included female judges, journalists, and human rights activists. The assassinations are also a potent form of psychological warfare designed to terrorize civilians. The Taliban has publicly denied any involvement.
Few have been brought to justice for the attacks, adding to the mounting anxiety and fear. In the vast majority of cases, the United Nations reports that impunity is “total.” While the Taliban is likely behind a majority of these killings, it is worth noting that an array of armed actors — both allied with and opposed to the government — may be using the growing lawlessness to settle scores or gain an advantage over their adversaries.
Other forms of violent crime have significantly risen in Afghan cities. Daytime muggings are commonplace in the capital, and many fear leaving home after dark. These incidents appear to be increasingly organized. Minibuses are pulled over in rush hour traffic and their occupants robbed, and the number of kidnappings for ransom is steadily growing. Thieves recently struck three branches of the same Kabul supermarket in a single day.
A reduction in foreign capital and jobs due to the exit of troops and other foreign organizations, compounded by the COVID 19-induced economic downturn, may be leading people to crime, according to a study by the Center for Strategic & Regional Studies. Rising urbanization amid poor public services and corrupt security forces have likely made the problem worse.
An ambitious anti-crime plan launched in Kabul in October 2020, headed by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, has not only failed to curb existing crime but has failed to prevent the new spike in targeted killings that is terrorizing the capital. Saleh’s campaign is perhaps most well-known for demolishing a popular burger joint and a beloved old movie theater. While done in the name of cracking down on crime, both actions spurred public outrage and ridicule.
In fairness to Saleh, any effort to crack down on criminality would likely be undermined, if not wholly defeated, by deeply entrenched nepotism and corruption. In protecting criminals, powerful figures routinely use their influence over the police to undermine investigations or get their allies released. An estimated 40 percent of Afghan parliamentarians have alleged connections to the narcotics trade and smuggling. However, the individuals at the heart of these criminal networks are typically hard to identify, as their influence (and the widespread fear of retribution) tends to deter others from openly naming them or reporting about them in the media.
Corruption is particularly widespread in the security sector. Many ostensibly responsible for maintaining the rule of law are actively involved in enabling or perpetrating criminal activity. A broader problem is that key security sector officials, including provincial and district police chiefs, are loyal first and foremost to local strongmen rather than to the government. This has not only undermined efforts to crack down on crime, but presents an increasingly grave threat to the central government’s legitimacy and control well beyond Kabul.
Take the case of Nizamuddin Qaisari, the former police chief of Qaisar district in Faryab province and head of an anti-Taliban “uprising force.” Like many local militia leaders, Qaisari has friends in high places: He is close to former Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and is affiliated with his Junbesh party. Qaisari has a long history of criminality and abuses against civilians. The list of attempts to arrest him is also long, at one point resulting in a prolonged firefight between government forces and Qaisari’s militia in the streets of Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif. While Qaisari evaded capture in that instance, he and 20 of his militia members were finally arrested in a major operation by the Afghan Army. His capture was, however, followed by widespread protests in the north, and he was freed after six months in custody. Renewed efforts to arrest him have failed. He most recently made headlines for attending a government event in Kabul (despite an outstanding arrest warrant), where he advocated the formation of militias to fight the Taliban.
The Spoils of Urban Violence
Ostensibly pro-government strongmen and militias are a regular part of the urban political economy, particularly in the north and west. What is new is that with government control rapidly eroding, these actors are becoming even less tied, and less accountable, to the central government — further contributing to the deterioration of urban security. Cities are becoming the battlegrounds for power struggles between well-armed and ambitious political actors. The losers are, of course, civilians, who must contend with the violence, criminality, and abuses these actors perpetrate.
The signs of the decaying political settlement have been evident for years now. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has sought to strengthen central government control, the dilemma is that he cannot live with criminal figures — nor can he live without them. The removal of the governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, in 2018 illustrates this dilemma. Atta, Balkh’s governor since 2004, was arguably the political kingpin of the north. In the mold of many of Afghanistan’s strongman governors, Atta was a Jamiat-i-Islami commander during the civil war. When Ghani fired Atta in late 2017, the governor refused to relinquish his position, and a tense stand-off ensued. Atta finally resigned in March 2018 in what was then seen as a political and economic victory for Ghani. A recent report noted that Balkh province remitted 50 percent more of its customs duties to the central government after Atta’s removal.
Since Atta’s resignation, however, security across Balkh and in the capital of Mazar-i-Sharif — once seen as a bastion of security — has sharply deteriorated. Lacking enough soldiers and police willing to man the checkpoints around the city, local strongmen and security officials have started recruiting impoverished and untrained civilians, at times under false pretenses, and arming them to protect the remaining checkpoints. While the scheme appears to be unofficially supported by government security officials, it is effectively run by ex-commanders and militia members loyal to Atta.
Strongmen-types, alongside their militias, have longstanding economic interests in urban areas, such as property, stakes in telecommunications and real estate businesses, (very lucrative) development contracts, and criminal activities. But as national political tensions flare up, cities are now larger and more economically valuable than ever before. While strongmen and their networks have long acted with impunity beyond the capital, this dynamic is increasingly common in Kabul. The International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that although private militias act in a more discreet fashion in the capital, the strongmen paying their salaries control profitable land-grabbing and extortion operations. Many of these strongmen, some of whom occupy influential political posts, maintain heavily armed militias that in turn extort local businesses or illegally seize land. Their links to the government ensure they will be able to act with impunity, even as they actively undermine security and government legitimacy.
Afghanistan’s Urban Crisis
The scramble for control of urban rents is facilitated by the weakness of the Afghan state and helps drive state weakness. Land, in particular, has been a source of contestation as its value has risen alongside the skyrocketing population of Kabul — the city’s population grew by 182 percent between 1988 and 2018 and is now just over four million, by conservative estimates. Well-connected local figures have opposed recent government population surveys in the capital for fear that their illegally acquired land would be scrutinized.
Kabul’s looming water crisis, made worse by a lack of urban planning and ineffective regulation of water usage, exacerbates the challenge of providing basic services and increases the risk of conflict over remaining water-rich areas. Both insurgents and government forces have already reportedly sought control over irrigation channels as a way of pressuring each other in a rural area of Uruzgan province in 2018. More generally, water scarcity harms Afghanistan’s odds for development, especially when the urban hubs that drive the country’s fragile economy are affected.
The country is experiencing one of the fastest urbanization waves in the world. Economic opportunities and access to services in cities have driven migration, while violence also displaces increasing numbers of Afghans from rural areas. Chronic droughts and floods — which the United Nations warns will reach acute levels this spring, affecting an estimated 13.2 million people — further drive Afghans to migrate to cities. The government has failed to keep pace. A staggering 86 percent of urban houses in Afghanistan can be classified as “slums,” lacking at least one basic feature such as safe water or adequate sanitation.
National and international policies — such as urban planning initiatives and improved service delivery — can still help improve governance and diminish the growing illicit stranglehold over the economy and vital services. But the situation has deteriorated far beyond the remit of normal urban policies. It now requires much more targeted political reforms around the urban security environment — for instance, reversing militias’ stronghold over some urban areas, improving policing and investigative capacities, and tackling the corrupting influence of powerful people over the security forces.
International support is essential to making progress in these areas. It is, however, worth emphasizing that the international community’s position on these issues has been deeply problematic and borderline hypocritical. On the one hand, it has long criticized Afghanistan’s central government for corruption and conditioned future aid on anti-corruption reforms. On the other hand, various international actors have long supported these strongmen and have not done enough to address the threat they pose to stability. This pattern continues with efforts around peace talks. The international community has pushed the government to take a more “inclusive” approach to peace, as most recently emphasized in U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s March 2020 letter to Ghani. This means, among other things, shoring up alliances with the very strongmen perpetrating criminality, carrying out violence, and undermining the rule of law.
To be sure, it may be difficult to see how the politically charged reforms outlined above would be feasible for a government fighting for its very survival. Peace talks have destabilized political dynamics on the government side, and encroaching Taliban influence into urban centers threatens to deprive the government of its last strongholds. A weakening central government has emboldened both the Taliban and various strongman factions. But the alternative to attempting reform is far worse: a continued deterioration of urban security and a further weakening of the central government. With the insurgency in control of the majority of Afghanistan’s rural areas, that leaves Afghanistan’s cities as the last and potentially final battleground in the Afghan war.
Ashley Jackson is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute.
Antônio Sampaio is a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.