The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has gathered pace in the last few weeks, with the United States (US) Central Command saying on 15 June that more than half of its remaining troops had already been pulled out of the country. US forces also handed over six Afghan facilities to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense. As this week’s NATO summit was the last one prior to the withdrawal date of 11 September 2021 announced by US President Joe Biden, he and his NATO counterparts took time in Brussels on 14 June to bid a symbolic farewell to Afghanistan. Reports quoting senior officials who attended the summit said that NATO leaders largely backed Biden’s decision to withdraw.
With 2,442 US troops and 1,144 soldiers from countries allied with the US having lost their lives in the 20-year Afghan campaign, and with the US alone having spent an estimated $2.26 trillion on the campaign, the relief that the US-led Western coalition would be experiencing now that the end is nigh can well be understood. As Erik Brattberg, Director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it, “At this point, you get the impression that NATO leaders almost want to downplay and leave quietly, rather than making too big a deal of it, and go on to focus on other business”. While such a course may work just fine for NATO, the impact that the withdrawal will have on the future of Afghanistan, and indeed on the lives and liberties of the bulk of the Afghan people, is not as straightforward.
Even if the decision to beat a retreat without achieving what they had set out to do cannot but be a bittersweet experience, many in the US and among its allies will feel with some justification that withdrawal from what has proved to be an unwinnable war in Afghanistan before more Western blood is fruitlessly spilled there is the correct decision. Refuting such an argument when seen from the perspective of the Western nations that have boots on the ground in Afghanistan may be challenging. However, there is another equally critical perspective here – that of the people of Afghanistan. When approached from their viewpoint, especially that of the democratically inclined amongst them or simply those who have over the last two decades gotten used to a life of relative freedom and opportunity, the withdrawal cannot be anything but a sellout, a breach of faith, an abandonment.
As violence in Afghanistan spirals even while the foreign troops head out, serious questions are being asked about the ability of the Afghan government to survive the offensive by the resurgent Taliban. This is especially so in view of reports that the Taliban is now blatantly utilizing its long-held ties with Al-Qaeda to further bolster its strength and reach. Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib has said that Al-Qaeda was playing a key role in keeping the Taliban’s war machine active in Afghanistan, and that both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) were acting jointly with the Taliban.
Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh has also asserted that the Taliban continued to operate “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Al-Qaeda. As recently as yesterday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that the possibility of a regeneration of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan in two years’ time certainly existed.
The United Nations Analytical Support and Sanction Monitoring Team in a report last week also asserted regarding Al Qaeda that “The group is such an ‘organic’ or essential part of the insurgency that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies”. The report added that hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives, including its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, are sheltering in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. It listed the Haqqani network as the main link between the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, observing that Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network are closely interlinked on “ideological alignment, common struggle and intermarriage”.
Pakistan’s security establishment has for decades been widely known to be treating the Haqqani network as a “strategic depth” asset, trusting it to secure Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan’s political and security spheres. The US had designated the group a terrorist organization in 2012, and it has repeatedly called on Pakistan to stop its sponsorship of the Haqqani network and to launch military operations against it.
The overall impression emanating from regional experts is that it is more a question of how soon rather than if the Taliban will forcibly grab the reins of power in Kabul. Kabul-based security expert Attiqullah Amarkhail summed it up when he told DW that “The US-Taliban agreement in Doha last year, and the unconditional withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan this year, have boosted the Taliban’s morale. Taliban leaders know they can defeat the government in Kabul. Therefore, we have seen a surge in their attacks on Afghan districts”. Raihana Azad, a member of the Afghan parliament, added, “The Taliban are stronger than ever. IS and other terrorist groups have gained a foothold in Afghanistan. Therefore, the consequences of a hasty and irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan could be dangerous not only for Afghanistan but also for the region and the world”.
As it makes huge military gains across Afghanistan, the Taliban has given little indication of being serious about the intra-Afghan dialogue process that formed an integral part of US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s peace plan. The talks had been stalled since April, and it took a concerted push by Khalilzad and Deborah Lyons, the United Nations (UN) Special Representative, to get representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban to meet in Doha on 15 June. Not much of substance was discussed during this meeting, and as the Afghan government’s Peace Negotiation Team tweeted, the meeting “between the contact groups of the two negotiating teams” merely conferred about “the organization and arrangement of the talks”. Taliban spokesman Muhamad Naeem confirmed this.
Meanwhile, the civil war that was feared would engulf Afghanistan once the foreign troops departed seems to have already begun in earnest well before the last coalition boots have left Afghan soil. This is reflected in the sharp rise in number of terrorism-linked fatalities in the country from April to May this year. As compared to 1,645 deaths in April, the number shot up to 4,375 in May. The corresponding figures for members of the Afghan security forces were 388 in April and 1,134 in May. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that through the mediation of local tribal elders sent by the Taliban, about 1,300 security forces personnel and officials had surrendered over the last one month. In the absence of air support from foreign forces, the Afghan government has lost at least five districts and tens of security check posts to the Taliban. Afghan government officials, on the other hand, claimed that in the last one month at least 3,991 Taliban fighters had been killed and another 2,141 injured in counterattacks by the security forces.
As the fighting rages and the signs are that much more chaos and uncertainty lies ahead, regional and ethnic leaders have begun serious preparations for the unfolding civil war. Tajik leader Ahmad Massoud, the son of the vaunted commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, warned that if the Taliban continued to seek a military solution the Afghan mujahidin groups would be prepared for a confrontation with the outfit. Hazara leader Mohammad Karim Khalili, anticipating a deterioration of the security situation in the Hazarajat area (Bamyan, Daykundi, Ghor, Uruzgan and Wardak Provinces), had begun efforts to prepare resistance militias against the Taliban. Atta Muhammad Noor, a former mujahidin commander and governor of the Balkh province, has said that his affiliated groups will resist the Taliban and stand by “our system and government”. Muhammad Ismail Khan, Afghanistan’s former Minister for water and energy and a leading politician of western Afghanistan, held a ceremony at his residence in Herat that was broadcast live on Facebook and in which several armed groups pledged to resist the Taliban. In an indication that the government in Kabul is actively involved in promoting these anti-Taliban mujahidin forces, Ahmad Zia Saraj, the head of the Afghan intelligence agency the National Directorate of Security (NDS), said that discussions were underway with all the armed groups that are “known as public uprising forces (and) who operate within the framework of the government” to resist the Taliban and prevent it from establishing an orthodox Islamic Emirate.
Even the UN appears to be readying itself for the civil war, with Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, telling Reuters that the UN expected the displacement of more civilians in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, and that “Therefore we are doing contingency planning inside the country for further displacement, in the neighbouring countries in case people might cross borders”. In Kabul, Embassies are reducing their presence or shutting down altogether due to the security concerns that arise from the civil war.
In a three-part series of articles for the Brookings Institution, Vanda Felbab-Brown dissected the internal factors that will shape developments in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, predicted four scenarios that are likely to play out on the ground, and analyzed the possible role that external actors are likely to have in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. While making some relevant suggestions regarding the use of international aid, which the Taliban is bound to require even if it wrests power, as a leverage to keep the outfit’s extremism under check, she also underlined the role that the Afghan political elite could play. That, of course, would depend largely on whether the usually self-serving elite could come together when the survival of the existing political order is at stake. The four possible scenarios over the next three to five years that Felbab-Brown enumerated were “a substantial preservation of the existing political dispensation; a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and key Afghan powerbrokers without substantially greater bloodshed; rapid Taliban gains on the battlefield and in political deal-making; and a protracted and fragmented civil war”. Even she concluded that the latter bleaker scenarios were far more likely than the preservation of the existing political order.
Felbab-Brown also touched upon how foreign actors, especially Pakistan, will approach a post-US Afghanistan. She believes that if influential international actors maintain working relations with the Taliban, that will reduce Pakistan’s leverage over the group. Suggesting that the Taliban leadership and their families were pawns in the hands of the Pakistani military establishment due to their compulsion to live in Pakistan, Felbab-Brown opined that if the Taliban was able to move its political leaders and their families from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leverage over the group would decline substantially.
In effect, the future of post-US withdrawal Afghanistan will be determined both by the attitude that the Taliban will adopt after seizing Kabul and by the role that regional countries will choose to play. While almost all regional countries have spoken in favour of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan and towards this end have individually developed relations with the Taliban over the past several years, there is a dire lack of consensus among these countries on how Afghanistan’s future needs to be encouraged to pan out.
This stems from the widely divergent historical experiences that these countries have had in dealing with Afghanistan. Asfandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, believes that “Afghanistan is making countries in the region and beyond nervous. Yet instead of coming together and offering a coherent international response, they are pursuing independent tracks and further aggravating the crisis”. Despite this, a common red line that insists that the Taliban prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming the terror factory of old may be a good starting point to forge some semblance of uniformity and coordination among regional powers.
As for President Biden, despite the disruptive influence that he believes China and Russia impart on the international rule-based order, it is at the mercy of these very ‘undemocratic’ regimes, and on an intrusive and overbearing Pakistan, that he has chosen to leave the fate of the Afghan people.