The primary participants in Afghanistan include warlords, jihadists, and Islamic republics.
With US and NATO troops almost completely withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban making quick gains, a number of stakeholders are preparing for the conflict’s next phase.
Here is a summary of what various powers, ranging from Kabul’s administration to local militias and regional states, want to gain or lose in Afghanistan as struggle for control of the war-weary country intensifies:
Afghan security forces, already stretched thin and with limited supply lines, have come under great pressure in the closing stages of the US troop pullout.
Afghan forces are facing ferocious Taliban attacks, including assaults on Taliban strongholds in the south and a rapid offensive in the north.
However, government forces retain control of the country’s cities, with the majority of territorial losses occurring in sparsely populated rural areas.
“Many of the districts that have fallen were low-hanging fruit — remotely positioned and difficult to resupply or reinforce, with little strategic military value,” said Andrew Watkins, an International Crisis Group senior expert on Afghanistan.
The Afghan military’s ability to survive the remainder of the summer combat season will almost certainly be critical to their long-term survival.
Notably, the US withdrawal means that Afghan forces have lost critical air support from the US.
“Essentially, this year the war will be the war over districts and highways,” Tamim Asey, executive chair of Kabul’s Institute of War and Peace Studies, explained.
“Next year, we could potentially see that the Afghan Taliban might focus on provincial capitals and major urban centres.”
Since its overthrow by US soldiers two decades ago, the jihadist movement has never appeared so strong.
Since early May, the organization has conducted a successful string of offensives across Afghanistan, taking entirely or partially around 100 of more than 400 districts.
The international community holds the Taliban accountable for sabotaging Doha’s historic peace talks with the Afghan government.
Rather than negotiating a political settlement, the insurgents appear to be concentrating their efforts on preparing their fighters for a military takeover.
“Strategically, it makes sense that they would test the Afghan security forces in the absence of US support to see how far they can get,” said Jonathan Schroden, head of the military research tank CNA’s Countering Threats and Challenges Program.
Despite persistent claims of leadership fractures, the Taliban appear to be cohesive and operating within an effective chain of command.
Ghani, who is well-known for his intellectual bent and infamous temper, is thought to be growing increasingly isolated at a time when he is desperate for supporters.
He has maintained his stubborn stance in the face of rising pressure on his government as a result of territory losses.
“He was the creature, the man of the Americans, but he is now considered to be uncontrollable and an obstacle to the peace process,” a Western official in Kabul said.
Recent changes to the country’s defense and interior ministries drew his followers closer, and may prove critical to his political survival in the future, as well as Washington’s sustained support.
However, several of his staff members have spent years living overseas and are accused of being out of touch with Afghanistan’s complicated social fabric.
Nonetheless, Ghani secured billions of dollars in security and humanitarian assistance during a recent trip to the White House.
Afghanistan’s warlords may be plotting a comeback as the country’s security services increasingly rely on paramilitary groups to supplement their depleting ranks.
As the Taliban pounded their way through the north in June, a call for national mobilization was issued, and hundreds of people took up guns in scenes reminiscent of the 1990s civil war.
“The recent calls for such mobilisation will also likely increase fragmentation on the republic side and undermine command and control, putting civilians at increased risk,” said Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch’s associate Asia director.
Militia leaders may attempt to use previous ties with foreign intelligence agencies in exchange for on-the-ground reconnaissance.
New strongmen within Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities have also begun arming and training recruits, which risks exacerbating the country’s already strained ethnic and sectarian divisions.
A new front in the region’s grand game has opened, with surrounding countries seeking to exert influence on the ground in Afghanistan while courting the conflict’s likely winners.
Pakistan has funded the Taliban for decades and may now be able to cash in on its stake in a future government led or co-led by the terrorists.
Islamabad’s primary objective will be to prevent archrival India from gaining influence and posing a danger to Pakistan’s western border.
Iran, likewise, is hedging its bets.
After coming dangerously close to conflict with the Taliban in the 1990s, Tehran has amassed enormous sway over at least one major Taliban faction.
Additionally, it maintains ties to warlords who opposed the Taliban throughout the country’s civil war.
“Some in Iran and Pakistan might certainly wish their favourites to get a bigger portion of the pie,” said Asad Durrani, the former head of Pakistan’s strong intelligence agency.
“I doubt if the Taliban will let them have their way.”