America’s longest war is finally coming to an end. This is the sentiment of many in the mainstream press who support decreasing America’s military footprint abroad to refocus energy on domestic issues like infrastructure and healthcare. But will American troop withdrawal bring Afghanistan stability?
By September 11, 2021 the 20-year war may be officially over for Washington but does not mean peace has been achieved. The frontline battle will change shape once American troops are gone, onsetting the geopolitical game for regional superiority in Central Asia and the Middle East. Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia, and China all have the strategic goal to stabilize Afghan politics, but all have competing interests.
Whatever Washington’s slight military gains were in this decades long war, the primary one being ousting the Taliban from central control, it did not manifest into political power to shape Afghanistan’s security architecture or to strengthen government legitimacy. A strong centralized Afghan state has not been established and Washington’s years of military coordination with Afghan forces have not created a well-rounded security institution. These failures will lead to more instability in the region, likely continuing low-level conflict that can manifest into short term regional battles. And this time many more players will be at the fighting table.
If Washington wants to maintain influence in the region, it will now have to compete as a broker for political influence.
More importantly, Washington will have to decide what are its strategic and security interests if the Taliban wins control back from the government in Kabul?
Let’s look at some recent developments.
Peace talks with the Taliban, which started as recently as 2018, have orchestrated Washington’s unconditional troop withdrawal and military disengagement from nation building efforts. This leaves the Afghan government to finalize their own peace talks, the Doha negotiations, with the Taliban while fighting continues on the ground.
Afghan government representatives fear that the negotiation process is being intentionally stalled by Taliban representatives in order to protract military advances made by Taliban fighters. The Taliban have successfully taken many districts formally governed by Kabul and has no plans to stop. In other words, it is possible that government negotiations with the Taliban will help to legitimize the group’s authority over large portions of the country.
And with American presence diminished, the negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban are more so a collection of paperwork that will not lead to a power sharing agreement but will legalize the Taliban’s power due to its victories on the ground.
As recently as this week, the Taliban have taken control of three regional capitals, the most important being that of Kunduz. Negotiations in the peace talks will be tempered by who controls larger portions of the country while the likelihood of a transitional government based on a power sharing agreement looks to be politically unfeasible.
The Taliban have taken major border crossings with Iran and Tajikistan and only the major cities and central highlands are holding out against the fast-paced insurgency. Sensing potential defeat, Kabul is looking to mobilize local militias to back up the Afghan army. In the 90’s civil war this had led to warlords purging political and business opponents and other mass atrocities.
Increasing the power of local militias will further entangle border countries like Pakistan, as militia leaders may seek to test the integrity of Pakistani border towns that are ethnically aligned with the militia groups. Instability in Pakistan is due to an insecure border with Afghanistan and the flow of ethnic Pashtun fighters creating safe harbor on Pakistani soil. These fighters can bring political turmoil to elites in Islamabad who must balance military relations with India.
Islamabad’s security dilemma with India is significant, as India cites Pakistani intelligence as using Islamist extremist fighters to wage war on Indian soil. Islamabad hopes to control the flow of fighters coming in and out of its territory and direct fighters away from implementing attacks that can weaken the Pakistani government. Also, if Islamabad can create strategic relations with a more pliable Taliban leadership it can be used as a military wedge against India’s ability to project power in South Asia. To further strengthen its security interests, Islamabad has strong economic and political relations with China which it will further use to exploit India’s leverage in the region.
Meanwhile, Russia will be dealt with an emerging security threat in Central Asia and China with its western border. The porous border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan may bring about a surge in fighters from the Afghan side, causing an upsurge in the organizational power of Islamist extremism, chiefly among Tajik and Uzbek groups. Moscow has traditionally seen Central Asia as its political orbit and views an uptick in the number of Islamist extremist fighters as a direct challenge to its influence in post-Soviet states. For now, Moscow is placing bets by attempting to build relationships with a government in Kabul that may be controlled by the Taliban as it seeks to avoid NATO redeploying in its sphere of influence.
Russia may see American withdrawal as the failure of Washington’s ability to nation build, but India has a bigger stake in regional stability if the Taliban regain power due to its links with Pakistani intelligence in waging attacks inside of India’s borders. New Delhi is concerned that a Taliban ruled Afghanistan will be Pakistan’s proxy to be used in a multifront offense against India and its strategic interests in Kashmir.
There is also risk that Pakistani intelligence will use its influence with the Afghan insurgent group the Haqqani Network to recruit more fighters to wage increased asymmetrical attacks on India. This may cause New Delhi to support ethnic insurgent groups like Baloch separatists in order to destabilize and thwart the influence of Pakistani intelligence with Islamabad’s political elite. Furthermore, New Delhi is concerned that Beijing will seek to cement relations with the Taliban in order to use Afghanistan as an important laneway for its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing can also use its possible economic influence with the Taliban to use Afghan territory to strategically choke out Indian trade and military advantages in the region.
As for China, its security interests lay in grounding Afghanistan to have enough political stability in order to use its territory as an economic corridor to help build Beijing’s ambitious project for a new regional economic framework. Afghanistan is located between two major routes of interest for Beijing, that being Central Asia and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This puts political pressure on Beijing to work with existing power circles in Kabul in order to foster a security relationship with the Afghan government.
Beijing will also worry about its domestic security due to an increasing number of Islamic extremist fighters flooding into China’s Xinjiang region. Beijing’s hostile treatment of Muslim minority Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region may cause local extremist groups to align with the Taliban, putting economic development projects and Chinese workers at risk for attack in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beijing also worries about a spillover of extremists into its western border areas allowing for low level attacks on its soil, mostly by Uyghur militias reenforced by the Taliban. Due to these security concerns and Beijing’s inexperience with Afghan politics, Chinese investment in Afghanistan has been minimal. Beijing is currently putting more political stock in its economic and security relations with Pakistan, using investment in infrastructure in Pakistan as a way to guarantee Islamabad’s political leverage over the Taliban and security for Chinese interests.
Washington should closely watch Beijing’s involvement in Afghanistan, as it may present new geopolitical risks for U.S interests. Beijing may exacerbate already weak governance and instability in Afghanistan causing an increased level of conflict with regional actors like India. Beijing could also use its new influence in Kabul to establish an informal military bloc of nations involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing may use this power to avoid accountability in the United Nations or to project its military power internationally.
Iran is also concerned about a renewed Taliban on its border and is already assessing the likelihood of an increase of cross border insurgents, illicit drugs, and weapons. While some in Iran see the American withdrawal as a U.S defeat, some view it as America throwing Iranian leaders a welcome quagmire. Tehran has a history of providing sectarian support for Afghan Shiite groups to fight against the Taliban and will have to balance its desire to fight religious proxy battles with the political necessity to not get embroiled in a larger scale regional fight with a more powerful Taliban force. If Tehran is to pursue a pragmatic approach it will have to court pro-Taliban Pashtuns, ethnic Hazara Shiites, and power players in the Kabul government.
With all this ensuing instability no regional power wants to put troops on the ground. Since the Taliban does not have the manpower or weapons to fully retake the country, Kabul may want to patch together a coalition of regional forces, with possibly India and Russia being major contributors.
Washington’s waning political influence will mean that Kabul will have to fight its own battles and come to terms with an emboldened Taliban leadership who will want to steer the country back to Shariah governance. If the current power elite in Kabul fall from power, stability in Afghanistan will depend on how Taliban leaders define their relationships with regional actors. Will it be transactional, or will religious ideology play a bigger hand?
The next steps for America will be to craft its foreign policy toward Afghanistan that is based on development. The military cannot always be used to build state institutions in foreign countries that have never socially adapted to the functionality of governing instruments of Western countries. Although there is much inefficiency and corruption with the management of economic aid to Afghanistan, it is still indispensable to the future of the country. The aid should focus on projects that have shown promise for success and that strengthen Kabul’s finance ministry and local community councils that deliver social services. Funding levels from foreign allies like Japan and the European Union are also important.
But international aid packages can only go so far and will not provide political stability to Afghanistan. America went into Afghanistan without clear long-term foreign policy objectives and enacted a piecemeal approach to the Middle East. The short-term military objective of regime change and destroying insurgent/extremist groups did nothing to rebuild Afghanistan as a modern state, as old actors within these groups were replaced by an endless supply of new actors with the same ideological goals. America should have had a broader Middle Eastern policy, one with a grand strategy of alliances that could have imparted better political solutions to the aftereffects of military operations.
Washington’s failures in Afghanistan stem from its believing that a policy of counterinsurgency and bombing campaigns would bring about a Western style civil society and that installing a political patronage system loyal to Washington elites would make Afghanistan function as a secular state. But actors alone do not make democracy, having a naturally grown cultural heritage of civil society is usually indicative of whether a state functions as a democracy or an autocracy. After 20 years of war, Afghanistan still does not function as a modern nation-state, but rather a collection of tribes that operate on a system of honor codes and not that of a state-based bureaucracy. Democracy is a foreign institution for an Islamic country like Afghanistan, where its own political institutions were unable to take form due to a history of colonial conquest. As stated before, democratic norms have a better chance at being implemented into a state governing style when it has the ability to grow naturally between local leaders and a constituent population. Afghanistan does have a degree of community councils, which may work for low level disputes but is hard to implement as a directive for state-based rules and operations.
It is likely that centralized government may not be what ultimately works for Afghanistan, but it is unlikely that regional actors like India, China, and Pakistan would allow Kabul to lose the existing infrastructure that it has.
Political mismanagement by President Ashraf Ghani has not helped the country, as he has kept the position of minister of defense absent or with rotating actors, imparting inexperienced aides with deployments and logistics that has caused the country’s security apparatus to fail to identify weak points and have a strong command and control force. Political infighting has also caused Kabul to lose sight of its long-term objectives and has derailed any meaningful opportunities to shape a strong unified national vision for Afghanistan.
Washington still does not have a comprehensive grand strategy toward the Middle East and as it is easy to see regime change is not a long-term strategic goal but part of a military tactic. Political success cannot come from military tactics unwedded to grand strategy.
In a way it feels like we are back to where we were in 2001. The only difference is that if the Taliban retake the country, they will have stronger state institutions to utilize. One way to get political legitimacy is through force, which the Taliban have plenty of, but this time their power can be further strengthened by what is left behind by the power elites in Kabul.
How strong they become remains to be seen but will depend on how regional actors seek to shape relationships with a newly empowered Taliban.
For now the battle between the Kabul government and the Taliban will continue to dismantle peace talks, as the American withdrawal from the country will put pressure on regional actors to deal with the political aftermath. But the geopolitical importance of Afghanistan will remain the same, that being too heavy to hold but too valuable to give away.