The withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan is having all the worst effects on the country that were widely anticipated. Allied forces are exiting smoothly and safely but leaving behind a political mess that will certainly get worse before it gets any better. Michael Clarke considers the immediate prospects.
The withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan is now all but complete, with just a few hundred foreign troops (650 US troops and a handful of others) remaining to protect their embassies and Kabul International Airport. The peace process between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan (GoA) will effectively go into abeyance for several weeks or months while the forces inside Afghanistan – the GoA, the Taliban and the warlord forces of the former Northern Alliance – reposition themselves through local conflict either for some future accommodation in which Taliban forces are dominant, or else another historical fracturing of the Afghan state itself.
In light of this situation the strategy of the United States is now very clear. There is unanimity that the fighting is over for the US and any support to the GoA will be from outside Afghanistan – and therefore of indirect help only in a military context to Kabul. US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will continue to shuttle around the region but the current trend of events all run against his mission. The US now keeps repeating that the responsibility for Afghanistan’s future must now lie with the Afghans themselves and with neighbouring states. It has simply dropped its long-standing ‘conditions-based approach’ to its withdrawal. US actions are no longer governed by any Taliban good faith.
In effect, the Biden Administration is prepared to risk a rapid and complete descent into civil war in Afghanistan, against the hope that all external regional actors will want to prevent it. The immediate US strategy is therefore to help the GoA, by indirect means, to hold out long enough against the Taliban campaign to convince Taliban leaders they cannot take power except through a new power-sharing arrangement. The GoA may not win against the Taliban; but they emphatically must not quickly lose. Simultaneously, the US tries to urge Pakistan, Iran, China, India and Russia to arrive at a consensus on this point and pressure the GoA, the Taliban and warlord forces in the country to accept the logic of it.
The US tries not to think too much about the hard reality that any such agreement between the GoA and the Taliban would have to involve new elections of some sort. That would be highly fraught in itself and likely provoke a new Taliban offensive if results went against them. The Taliban, remember, simply don’t believe in elections; indeed, they regard them as blasphemous since they take political legitimacy from God and put it in the hands of citizens. A prolonged, power-sharing transitional government, repeatedly delaying elections, remains the best political prospect.
In any case, the Taliban will not enter into a meaningful peace process until they have exploited whatever military gains they can now make on the ground. They have obfuscated at mediation in Doha and Tehran, ignored an attempted mediation in Ankara, and promised vaguely to table their own peace plan sometime in August. They are playing for time to fight more intensively in theatre. Meanwhile the GoA still lacks a meaningful political strategy beyond resisting all Taliban territorial encroachments and its credibility with the former warlords who supported it is steadily evaporating.
The Current Fighting
Taliban forces are making rapid gains in the rural districts. By 10 July they were reported to have taken over 200 of the 407 districts and were contesting at least 100 more. Claims of how much physical territory they now control, however, (85% is claimed but 30+% is more likely) are not very relevant. The more important points are that Taliban forces have honoured their tacit agreement not to attack provincial centres or foreign forces during the military withdrawal process. That understanding has now effectively come to an end.
Taliban forces have been most active in the north – around Herat – in regions they never controlled in the 1990s, and they have tried to occupy border crossing points into Turkmenistan and Iran. This is a bold strategy and may reflect their confidence, operating away from their Pashtun heartlands to forestall any recreation of the Northern Alliance.
But Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek/Turkmen loyalties are strong and as warlords like Dostum, Alipoor, Khan, and Hekmatyar lose confidence in Ashraf Ghani’s government, they have already geared up for local defence in areas around Herat and Badakhshan, Behsud, Maidan and Wardak. The Taliban may be testing their own strength and intend to create a sense of military momentum. If they can dominate in the north, their thinking goes, the Pashtun heartlands in Kandahar and the south east will subsequently fall all the more easily under their control.
The current Taliban offensive is also a test of their political influence across the country when they can no longer portray themselves as fighting foreign forces, or being engaged in a holy war.
A rapid Taliban sweep into Kabul is by no means inevitable, however. Full-time Taliban fighters are estimated by NATO at around 85,000. Active Afghan military forces in the Afghan army and security forces stand at around 300,000. Nevertheless, the differences in quality, loyalty, the subtlety in tactics (including the Taliban’s use of social media) and the modern weaponry now falling into Taliban hands, all suggest that the momentum will remain with the insurgents as long as they can prevent a meaningful Northern Alliance reforming.
The coming military campaign – which will set the conditions for any future settlement, negotiated or otherwise – will revolve around the GoA’s ability to defend the 34 provincial capitals and (as a key hub and symbol of control) Kabul International Airport. Less than 30% of Afghanistan’s population live in its urban centres, but they are the points of governmental authority and represent the levers of power for any Kabul government.
The External Powers
Beyond the fighting, the focus now moves, again, to the attitude of the external powers.
The US is keen to re-engage more closely with Pakistan after the Trump Administration’s approach, very likely by offering to resume security assistance to the country after it was suspended in 2018. The US will want to encourage Pakistan’s pressure on the Taliban to break off its offensive quickly and ‘bank its gains’ in a power-sharing deal. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan has made it very clear that Pakistan will not host any bases to operate US airpower remotely over Afghanistan. That is quite a blow to Washington’s hopes of helping the GoA hold out for a while.
The US would like Tehran to push the same message to the Taliban, and Washington builds both on Tehran’s strengthening relationship with Pakistan, alongside Tehran’s fears of major refugee flows from Afghanistan across the border. It also sees that if Tehran helps promote regional stability in Afghanistan, it can play into US nuclear talks with Iran and perhaps the inducement of sanctions relief as a reward.
The bigger regional issue for the US, however, is the opportunities its withdrawal offers China, which is the ultimate strategic winner from the Afghan war. China already has major investments in the extractive industries of Afghanistan and wants to use it to create a stronger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network in the region. This will not stop a civil war in the immediate future, but may make a Taliban, or any power-sharing transitional government in Kabul, more amenable to pursuing a peaceful path.
China has admitted holding recent talks both with Taliban leaders and ministers of Ashraf Ghani’s GoA (not possible prior to US withdrawal). They have discussed economic support to a post-war Afghanistan and better Afghan transport links with Pakistan. A Peshawar-to-Kabul motorway would be a key element that would create an Afghan/Pakistan core to its BRI ambitions centred on the growth of Gwaidar port and the link to Taxkorgan (Tashkurgan), just inside Xinjiang on the border with Afghanistan. China will press for Afghanistan formally to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is in China’s interests that its key BRI routes in South Asia are politically stable, notwithstanding fierce Indian opposition to such Chinese consolidation. For India, an even more extensive Chinese BRI is a dreadful prospect and India will try to prevent it. Nevertheless, if more fighting will push Kabul closer to Beijing, then helping engineer a rapid end to the current fighting in Afghanistan might be New Delhi’s best option at the moment.
The US will also want to prevent Moscow involving itself any more closely in the fighting (or the talking) and using the Afghan situation as another political lever to make mischief for Washington. Russia has almost no constructive role to play directly in Afghanistan’s future, but can certainly act as a spoiler against (ever weakening) US political influence to create a peaceful outcome for the country.
Concerted, external pressure on the Taliban, the GoA and the warlords in favour at least of a process towards peaceful transition would be very welcome. In vacating the military field, the US is largely vacating the political field in Afghanistan as well. That had to happen at some time. But it has happened at a time and in a way that virtually guarantees there is more fighting and dying for Afghans to do before any talking is likely to restart.
Michael Clarke is the author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018. He is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I. B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021, forthcoming.
Photograph: © Crown copyright 2013. See, MOD News License: http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/rsrc/20130715_Crown_Copyright_MOD_News_Licence_V2.pdf