The US Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Afghanistan, which having been ravaged by war for decades, is yet again at a crucial juncture as the US troop and NATO forces withdrawal draws near, September of this year (2021); maybe even earlier. While Afghanistan has always resisted foreign occupation, it has never truly stabilized. Will it stabilize this time?
The situation in Afghanistan after the departure of the US military could impact the politics and stability of the entire Region – and possibly even beyond. It will have ramifications far and wide. China, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, the US, and NATO may all be affected. How Afghanistan fares for the next few years will have, in my opinion, a lasting impact on US foreign policy, especially its desire for military interventions which will probably be in retreat.
Will the Afghan peace process succeed? This longest military involvement of the US – longer even than that of Vietnam has failed. Victory has eluded the US and NATO. The US failed in its objectives, despite changing these objectives frequently so as to project a modicum of victory. Madiha Afzal of Brookings Institution calls it a “stunning lack of introspection about the US’s role in the conflict”.
The Victor and the Vanquished
The US commanders and their political masters have often tried to downplay their defeat by calling the situation a stalemate. Even a stalemate is unanimously considered a defeat for the counterinsurgent forces by all counterinsurgency experts. There is no doubt that the US, in its own parlance, is about to “Cut and Run”. It is all set to achieve an “Artificial Closure” to this intractable adventure.
Theirs is not a conditioned-based withdrawal; it is not a responsible one either. A responsible withdrawal by the US and its troops has been the desire of several regional countries including Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and Afghanistan itself. The irony is that despite Pakistan’s desire for the US to carry out a conditions-based withdrawal, Pakistan feels “coerced” to support the US in doing exactly the opposite.
This coercion takes the form of “asking” Pakistan to exercise its influence over the Taliban to adhere to the requests of the US and help them create a perception of victory, as they bid farewell to Afghanistan. It is important to conclude if a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of which intra-Afghan dialogue is only a part (albeit a significant one), can be reached. Can this CPA be reached before the withdrawal of all the US forces in September 2021?
An Imperative Comprehensive Peace Agreement
It is now obvious that the US is on a time schedule and would depart regardless of the CPA, or the actual conditions on the ground. This becomes even more evident by the desire of the effort of the US commanders to actually depart even earlier than Sep; perhaps by July of 2021. The agreement signed between the Taliban and the US in February 2020, is only the first step – that too only a rudimentary one.
A CPA would have to be much more elaborate and include several agreements: –
- A Taliban-US Agreement: This will have to be in much more detail than the current one (signed in February 2020) and would have to include implementation and monitoring methodology, including arrangements for setting up a transitional government, and its role.
- Ratification by NATO of the Taliban-US Agreement.
- Taliban-Afghan Government Agreement or in other words, an Intra-Afghan Agreement, will have to be supported by all pro-Afghan government factions.
- Pakistan–Afghanistan Agreement: Such an agreement in support of the entire process may be warranted. While this may not remove all the pitfalls, it may reduce the longstanding distrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- A declaration by supporting states: A formal declaration would be needed in support of Afghanistan by the “friends of Afghanistan”.
- A more formalized financial support commitment by the US and allies for the next several years.
For a CPA to be called as such, and to be effective, it has to encompass all of the above agreements and has to include within it, the cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan, political and security power-sharing, the US troop withdrawal, constitutional reform, transition methodology, and implementation mechanism.
The Battles Within
The Intra-Afghan Dialogue itself remains extremely challenging at best. Without the US’s “hand-holding” it may not work. Pakistan may also have to remain actively involved but would be reluctant, out of fear of being “scapegoated” later. It is now clear to most that an “Afghan-led” peace process though politically correct, cannot succeed. The US will have to influence even the Intra-Afghan process, and then try that Afghans eventually own it.
Transitional arrangements are a key element of the Intra-Afghan Dialogue. Efforts are ongoing in this regard. The recent plan proposed by President Ashraf Ghani – in which he himself remains the transitional President, oversees the elections, does not contest himself, and promises to abdicate in favor of the winner of the Presidential election – is a non-starter as the Taliban would not accept any elections under the President-ship of Ashraf Ghani, especially based on the current constitution.
The Taliban has repeatedly refused to accept the current constitution – which they say was drawn up under American “guidance”. Some in the Afghan Government, as well as some of the other players, have benefited from the war economy, from which money is conveniently siphoned off.
There is fear amongst these players that this ‘‘convenience’’ would cease with the withdrawal of the US’s forces and affect their livelihood. Hence, there is a vested interest in the status quo. Resultantly, an Intra-Afghan agreement within an overall CPA remains elusive at best.
The Taliban’s Position in Afghanistan After the US Troop Withdrawal
Even if there is a political settlement before the departure of US/NATO forces, the implementation of it would remain fraught with difficulties. The Taliban in all probability would like to take control of the Government as well as a maximum of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts.
As things stand today, the Taliban already control a large portion of the territory – especially that which is closer to the main communication arteries. As all areas are not controlled by a single entity, it will have to be the responsibility of multiple stakeholders to provide security in the areas that each control. This will be a difficult undertaking.
Another significant challenge for the US will be its inability to hold the Taliban accountable in any effective manner for fulfilling their end of the bargain once the US forces have withdrawn. Holding the Taliban accountable will have to be done through diplomacy (an art fairly alien to Taliban – especially given the circumstances) and/or through a counterterrorism effort based and launched from outside Afghanistan.
Most of the responsibility will rest on the current Afghan government – which in any case has to be replaced, or at least merged, in the interim setup, of which the Taliban are not willing to be a part of, yet. However, in any democratic dispensation, the Taliban would have to be accepted as a major party. The main question is whether the Taliban would want a democratic, but a shared version of power versus an unadulterated one, having used kinetic means. The entire US effort is to prevent the latter from happening.
In case of failure to find a peaceful resolution, the Afghan Government’s implementation arm would be the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). A brief review of ANSF’s capabilities and potentials would be in order. A National Army can only be called national if it has suitable regional and ethnic representation. Such representation exists in the Afghan army – especially in its officers’ cadre, but their unity remains tenuous.
The combined strength of the army and the police (ANP) is approximately 288,702. A force of such numbers with the type of equipment and capability it has, would need 5-6 billion USD per year to sustain itself. Will the US congress sanction that kind of budget for ANSF for several years, that too, after the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Various ethnic groups continue to report to their ethnic leadership rather than their military chain of command, clearly indicating their loyalties. Such loyalties defeat the very concept of a National Army and are indicative of a potential disintegration in case of conflict with the Taliban, post the US withdrawal.
Due to the Taliban’s capacity to militarily sway events, and their potential to be dominant, the Pakhtun component (45%) of the Afghanistan Army would be vulnerable to switch to the Taliban side. The other ethnicities may prefer joining their respective ethnic leadership. This may not be true for all, but for at least some percentage of the current Afghan Security Forces.
If this happens, it could spell disaster for the Afghanistan Government, as these trained soldiers, with their weapons and information about key installations, could be the dreaded “force multipliers” for the Taliban. The Afghan Army, even currently, is faced with an average attrition rate of 30% per year due to poor leadership, poor management, and pervasive corruption, but most of all, due to Taliban intimidation.
According to renowned scholar and expert J. Schroden, Afghan forces lack staying power as well as motivation when compared to the Taliban. The near-collapse of the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps in 2015 and the collapse of their defenses near Ghazni in 2018 are somewhat reflective of the forthcoming challenges. With an ascendant Taliban, post the US withdrawal, the attrition rate of the Afghan forces will increase substantially.
It may also increase due to inadequate financial support to the Afghan Government and the Army for their salaries and sustenance. In fact, the situation is already deteriorating. Fighting has intensified, and some Afghan forces have unsurprisingly surrendered. The Taliban have traditionally resourced their fight over the years through drugs, mining, taxation, and by capturing equipment from Government (Afghan Army, Police) controlled check posts.
They have had clandestine external support as well. According to J. Schroden, the Taliban exercise greater autonomy in fighting by providing initiative to their ground commanders through local ‘‘shuras’’. They have proved to be a resilient enemy, one which has engaged in strategic planning and coordinated action.
The US’s Intentions
It is often forgotten that a peace deal has not been sought by the Taliban, but by the US. By agreeing to a date for withdrawal, the control and strategic initiative have firmly been ceded to the Taliban, who may continue to play along, until the departure of all US forces and thereafter lose all interest and motivation for a Peace Agreement or implementation of it, whether it has been finalized prior to the US departure or not.
The US will try to address this with “over the horizon” support. This means carrying out operations which will largely be intelligence gathering and counterterrorism, by flying in from bases outside Afghanistan. For such operations to happen, the US would need a base close enough to Afghanistan. If the Gulf bases (Qatar, Bahrain) were to be used, it would need overflight permissions from Pakistan.
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity by the US with Pakistan, in all probability, is meant to secure a base or overflight rights from Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban without naming Pakistan has already warned against any such arrangement with the US by any neighboring country. Even if the Taliban leadership, theoretically speaking, really wanted a peace deal, it would be extremely difficult for them to convince their “rank and file” who now, after two decades of fighting, sense a clear victory.
If the Taliban leadership were to go ahead, regardless of the popular sentiments of their rank and file, either one or a combination of the following may happen:-
- Splintering of the Taliban, further complicating the peace process, stability, and long-term peace.
- The Taliban leadership may renege on any Agreement to retain unity amongst their ranks.
Future Scenario & Implications of Afghanistan the American Troop Withdrawal
Having looked at most of the challenges, it is time to frame a scenario for Afghanistan’s future. The most likely scenario (post the US withdrawal) could that the Peace Agreement, even if reached, would collapse with the Taliban extending their control over more and more Afghan districts. A chaotic civil war would ensue.
The Afghan National Army, having given the Taliban a modicum of a fight would begin to disintegrate, leading to the eventual fall of Kabul and the current Afghan government. Non-Pakhtun ethnicities may feel marginalized and would fight back under the banner of the erstwhile Northern Alliance.
This instability will encourage regional countries to get actively involved and play out proxies to the detriment of all. There will, however, exist islands of comparative stability, stabilized by local warlords and their militias. Drug trade would flourish, as would ISIS. Afghanistan, in all probability, would replicate the violence which broke out in Iraq when the Americans left from there – and in Iraq, there had been a clear military victory, achieved by the Americans and their allies.
The time within which this deterioration would occur may be somewhat longer if a comprehensive (including Intra–Afghan) Peace Agreement has been reached prior to US departure. Can this scenario be avoided or mitigated? It can be mitigated by delaying the departure of US troops by 12-18 months so as to ensure a CPA is reached, elections based on a new constitution held, and power transferred with the assurance of financial assistance from friendly developed countries.
This financial assurance must be acted upon and not remain merely a commitment. The delayed and phased US/NATO troop withdrawal would not only have improved the chances of a successful peace deal but would also have ensured its implementation in Afghanistan. It would have been more responsible, both to the taxpayers and to the memory of thousands of those who lost their lives.
However, as President Biden has already committed to the departure date, the mitigation of the aforementioned scenario is not therefore possible by a delayed departure. It can be mitigated, only minimally by efficient and resilient counterterrorism (US parlance) support from bases outside Afghanistan. The scenario in all probability will play out.
Taliban’s Rule in Afghanistan
If the Taliban were to come into power, whether through a democratic process of election or through the use of force, my expectation is that their manner of governance would be somewhat less intense than the last time. This expectation is based on two primary reasons:
First: The Afghan government over the last two years has self-generated only $800 Million per year, relying for the remaining, on financial assistance from the US and others. The Taliban understand this and would want this financial support to continue to whatever degree possible. This financial support would be more forthcoming if the Taliban were to gain power through a democratic process.
Second: They have learned from past experience that an extreme form of governance may not only dry up external funding but may also get the UN and other countries militarily involved, with its concomitant complications for their sustained stay in power.
As was evident from the recent Taliban Amir’s Eid-ul Fitr message, there may be positive flexibility with regard to girls’ education, minority rights, physical amputations, and capital punishments. The public at large in Afghanistan have had many reasons to support the Taliban: foreign occupation, presence of militant organizations, lack of job opportunities, public safety and security, ethnic and sectarian rivalry, weak governance, regime opposition etcetera.
After the departure of US Forces, this public support – some natural, some coerced – would increase. The Taliban would be projected as victors, drawing more youth towards their cause. Their militant presence would be another major reason for coercive public support, as would be their method of summarily dispensing justice.
The Regional States’ Positions
Due to the political and security vacuum, regional countries like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and India would get more actively involved and several proxies would be fought in Afghanistan. The most significant proxy would be that of India and Pakistan, which would lead to the deterioration of relations between the two counties.
Despite the Taliban’s dislike for ISIS, the latter would be able to find sanctuary and support within Afghanistan and may actually thrive with possible support from countries, which are opposed to Taliban rule. This does not mean that ISIS would pose any serious threat to the Taliban but may be able to control some area(s), using extreme forms of violence.
The erstwhile Northern Alliance, which is already being revived would be established, possibly under the leadership of late Ahmed Shah Massoud’s son. Their purpose, as in the past, would be to protect Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks against Pakhtun domination under the Taliban. Again, as in the past, Iran and India may support the Northern Alliance.
India this time around, however, would try to keep the Taliban engaged as well. There are already reports of buying weapons by elements previously part of Northern Alliance, so the recreation of the Alliance is on the cards. Pakistan, on the other hand, having learned from past experience would support the dialogue process, but on its failure, would put its weight behind the Taliban – but keep the Northern Alliance engaged as well.
With India and Pakistan both supporting Taliban as well as Northern Alliance, the situation would be fairly complex. There could be an exodus of refugees, most to Pakistan and some to Iran. These refugees, adding to those already present, would create social, economic, cultural, and security challenges for the state of Pakistan; Pakistan will be blamed for not exercising enough influence over the Taliban to prevent the deterioration of the situation.
Pakistan, in response, will try to absolve itself of such “scapegoating”. This could bring Pakistan-US relations under stress. The chaos in Afghanistan would necessitate more Pakistani troops near the Western border, with Afghanistan impacting Pakistan’s security with implications along its Eastern border with India.
Pakistan, despite having set up a fence on the border along Afghanistan, may still encounter some militant groups trying to use Pakistan territory for logistics, etcetera. The youth of the border towns on the Pakistan side may also be exposed to recruitment efforts of the Afghan Taliban. The administration of the newly merged FATA territories of Pakistan would come under duress including the Provincial Government in Peshawar.
The US administration (current as well as past) will be extensively blamed for “wasting” the taxpayers’ money for over two decades and suffering extensive casualties without adequate results. The failure in Afghanistan coming on the heels of Iraq would add insult to injury. This pattern would be repeated in other major NATO and European countries.
All this will result in reduced military involvement of US/NATO in other countries – at least in the near future. Lastly, the failure of the US in Afghanistan may embolden other militant groups, with associated challenges to the stability of several countries and regions – especially in the Middle East and Africa.
A country that has historically brought mighty armies to their knees, has done just that, once again. It is now farewell Afghanistan, as US and NATO forces depart; but the fear is that this ill-conceived departure may not become a farewell to Afghanistan’s stability, integrity, and unity.
Only time will tell.
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