Recently, most public debate about the course of the war in
Afghanistan has centered on the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Distinctly lacking from the discourse is discussion of what happens
afterwards. In those few cases in which this is considered, it is
always couched in terms of how much or what kind of support we can
give to President Karzai or his successor.
Such medium-term considerations are of course very important. However,
in order to properly determine our best medium-term course of action,
we must have a clear an understanding of the longer-term range of
outcomes. For instance, support to Karzai or any other successor
assumes that the government will survive the U.S. withdrawal.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons to question whether the
government will in fact survive.
First, there are the centrifugal forces that constantly pull at the
pieces of the Afghan National Security Forces, the centerpiece of the
U.S. withdrawal strategy. The U.S. plans to “stand down as they stand
up,” but this will only work if they also stand together. It is
important to remember who the ANSF are, and how they are organized.
The majority of these forces are commanded by former mujahideen from
the 1990’s. These are the same men who, after the defeat of the
soviets, created a new government, only to tear it and the rest of the
country to pieces shortly thereafter. This should matter greatly to
our strategic planning: what are we doing to ensure that their
factionalism does not again rip the new state apart? This is
especially concerning since the U.S. has encouraged the creation of
local militias in addition to the ANSF.
Second, there is the Taliban to contend with. Last time a major power
withdrew from Afghanistan, it did so under pressure from the
Mujahideen, not the Taliban. And as noted, the Mujahideen were a
fractious conglomeration of various different groups, unused to
heeding central authority. The Taliban, by contrast, are a political
movement as much as an Army. They therefore have a political ideology
binding them together and giving them common purpose. After all, the
Taliban was formed in reaction to the rampant factionalism of the
1990’s. They thus have a great advantage in surviving challenges and
repelling attempts to buy off pieces of their armed forces (a common
tactic in Afghanistan).
Third, the Taliban have a distinct legitimacy advantage. Not only are
they are a Pashtun group seeking to rule a Pashtun-majority country,
they also provide real governance at the ground level (even in areas
they do not currently hold). The Taliban, interested more than
anything in law and order of the strictest nature, brooks no
corruption within its ranks. The Afghan people know this, and respect
it. The national government, by contrast, is mainly seen as a pool of
corrupt leeches, for very good reason. The U.S. has done little or
nothing to confront the rampant corruption of the government, police,
Lastly, and of no little import, the Taliban have a geographic
advantage. They can enter almost any area of Afghanistan, as they have
shown through several high-profile attacks on Kabul. Meanwhile, the
Afghan government cannot follow them back to their redoubt in the
tribal areas of Pakistan. Until Pakistan reverses its policy of active
support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups, the Taliban will
have a large and secure area to rest, rearm, and plan. It has been
shown that insurgencies with such cross-border safe havens are much
more likely to survive and thus succeed in toppling the government.
Indeed, this is how the Taliban got started.
Given these factors, it seems highly likely that the Taliban will
succeed in driving the Karzai government from power within a
relatively short time. Some very respectable analysts estimate that
the government would not be able to keep Kabul more than two years
after the U.S. withdrawal is effective. Whether or not this is the
case, the plausibility of the scenario warrants study and discussion.
The U.S. needs to be prepared to deal with whoever is in charge of
Afghanistan. As yet, there has been no discussion of how the U.S.
should prepare for, or handle, a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Can
anything consequential be done prior to complete withdrawal? If the
Taliban take power, should the U.S. accommodate them, and interface
with the new regime, as it has done with other popularly supported
insurgencies? Should we plan for a partitioned Afghanistan?
With the troop withdrawal around the corner, we need to start planning
for every eventuality. And if we expect that the Taliban will return,
we must start laying the groundwork now for whatever form our
relations with them will take.
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research