Delivering aid to millions of Afghans in need is becoming more complex and dangerous as government forces and militant groups splinter and security deteriorates, analysts say.
Foreign forces formally withdrew from combat roles at the end of 2014, leaving behind an Afghan army that has taken heavy loses in recent years while the opposition Taliban has become increasingly fragmented. On both sides, new splinter groups have emerged – making it far more dangerous for humanitarians to deliver aid to those in need.
Antonio Giustozzi, visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London and an expert on Afghanistan, said the conflict was fragmenting on all sides, with dozens of armed groups contesting certain areas. “It is making for a much more complex environment for NGOs,” he said. “[In 2015] they may have to negotiate with more organisations than ever before.”
Both sides fracturing
While the perception of the Afghan conflict as simply the government and allied forces against a unified Taliban has long been an over-simplification, in recent years the number of fighting groups has grown exponentially.
According to Giustozzi, the Taliban first splintered in 2009, with later years seeing an acceleration of the process. He said there are now believed to be three shuras, or consultative councils, that have declared varying degrees of autonomy from the original Quetta Shura. Another seven or eight independent “fronts” have also declared greater levels of independence.
These fronts, he said, were often receiving funding directly from outside Afghanistan – with groups from Pakistan, Iran and Gulf countries alleged to be supporting them – and are therefore not always accountable to central Taliban command. “Some of the [outside] donors are unhappy with the different shuras and decided they wanted more control over how the money is spent,” he said. “So they are funding individual fronts.”
For those seeking to provide aid, it means access agreements with the central Taliban control may not be enough. In particular, Giustozzi said, the Zakir Front in parts of Helmand Province has been refusing to recognise agreements made by the Taliban’s central NGO commission for several months.
In May 2013, the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the aid agencies with the best access in Taliban-controlled areas, was attacked in Jalalabad, capital of Nangahar Province, with one staff member killed. While it has never been confirmed, it was widely reported to be the work of a Taliban splinter organization. ICRC declined to comment.
Numerous NGOs raised concerns over the ICRC killing to IRIN, pointing out that a deal with the Taliban no longer guarantees security. “We can reduce risk by 20-40 percent by agreeing an access deal with the Taliban but we can never be sure,” said a senior NGO worker.
While the Taliban itself has fractured, further concerns have been raised in the past two years as major new Islamist groupings have broken off into entirely new militant groups.
Giustozzi said small al-Qaeda affiliates had established themselves, while the past year has also seen at least two groups pledge allegiance to the so-called Islamic State: a splinter from the Haqqani Network, an Islamist insurgency formed in the mid 1970s, and a group in Helmand, led by former Guantanamo detainee Muslim Dost
“These are hardline groups that say the Taliban are too soft now that they want to talk – they [the Taliban] are too concerned about collateral damage of the jihad.”
Cathy Howard, acting head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the UN is wary of these growing threats.
“We are prepared that along with the Taliban and other groups interested primarily in criminal activities, that there are other ideological groups now developing that don’t hold their allegiance to [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, that may be looking elsewhere for support,” she said. “Afghanistan is not isolated from what is happening elsewhere in the world – the Middle East.”
Not just the opposition
From the government side, too, Giustozzi said that numerous militias and criminal gangs that had been previously affiliated with the government have become increasingly rogue as foreign funding from the Americans and other allies has dried up.
“The money was the connection and they were linked into government networks. With less money around, they need other ways to make revenue,” he said.
Bo Schack, the outgoing head of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, told IRIN in the capital Kabul last autumn that criminal gangs were stealing the organisation’s goods. “The big problem is criminality. With criminality you have nobody to negotiate with,” he said.
Government forces have been stretched but so far have managed to maintain their discipline, Graeme Smith, Kabul-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN.
He said the number of deaths and injuries among Afghan security forces roughly doubled in 2014 compared to 2013, adding that the numbers were in the thousands but that the official data often underestimated them.
“Yet even though they have been taking a beating the Afghan forces seem to be able to maintain the same level of operations. Quite how long that can continue is not clear.”
For those trying to deliver aid to Afghanistan’s needy – estimated at 7.4 million people, just over a quarter of the population - the fracturing war makes for many complications. It means that despite the UN improving its relations with the Taliban in recent months, the environment is still increasingly unpredictable.
Previously stable areas of the country are no longer. For example, after years of relative calm, the disputed eastern provinceof Nangahar has become among the most violent. More worryingly still, Smith said, the somewhat random nature of the violence has made it harder for NGOs to work around it.
“[The southern provinces of] Kandahar or Helmand are clear-cut and easier to predict. In the east, it is a confusing alphabet soup of new insurgent groups which is difficult,” Smith said.
“If you are the UN, maybe you feel more confident operating in areas solidly controlled by the government or the Taliban, but more concerned by those that are more disputed,” he said.