By Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar*
President Biden announced on 14 April 2021 the end of what is described as America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan. The announcement came nearly two decades after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Ten years ago, the US proclaimed the accomplishment of their war aims with the ouster of the Taliban and the disposal of Osama bin Laden. What followed was a decade-long rudderless war, through which futile attempts to transform Afghan society and foist Western-style democracy on its people were made. Now the country is at a critical juncture. The US exit will create a power vacuum. With the Taliban’s resurgence and the civilian government’s lack of grasp in several parts of the country, the possibilities of intra-state as well as inter-state power plays run high.
Under the February 2020 US-Taliban Doha Agreement, American forces were to fully withdraw by May 2021, in exchange for a Taliban commitment to preventing Afghanistan from being used by terrorists, and agreeing to intra-Afghan talks. Even before Biden’s announcement, the Taliban had declared that they would not participate in any further talks and threatened consequences if the withdrawal deadline was shifted. While they have reneged on any further intra-Afghan talks, the matter of terrorist use of Afghan territory remains undetermined.
In its twelfth report published on 1 June, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team observed: “The Taliban’s intent appears to be to continue to strengthen its military position as leverage…the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” The report also highlights the “issue of narcotics in Afghanistan…which continues to remain the Taliban’s largest single source of income.” Since May, the Taliban have struck at Kabul, Zabul, Logar, Herat, Helmand, and Ghor among several others, causing over 665 casualties. This includes a car bombing of a school in the capital, which resulted in 55 casualties. Extrapolating from these incidents, one can picture the scope, spread, and ferocity of the Taliban assault as they make their inexorable bid to seize unconditional power post-withdrawal.
So what of the power vacuum in Afghanistan? Much has been made of the region’s potential to harness its role as the “Heart of Asia” and integrate and stimulate commerce between and beyond the five Central Asian states. The reality is the warring nature of the polity within, and intrusive external interests, that seek to manipulate and control. For Pakistan, it is the expansion and consolidation of exclusive Taliban power that would facilitate their bizarre conceptualisation of “strategic depth.” China seeks a free hand in the exploitation of Afghan resources irrespective of the dispensation in power. Iran has been wary of an exclusively pro-Saudi and pro-Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan in the past. However, what would determine Iran’s current response is how Saudi Arabia reciprocates to the Taliban given the Saudis have also ideologically revamped since 2001. The Saudis or the Iranians are unlikely to be interested in opening another front when it comes to proxy war.
The question then is: Is the current situation in Afghanistan indistinguishable from when the Taliban was ousted in 2001? Is the Taliban going to resort to its former ultra-conservative, misogynist, religious, and political tactics? Will it rehost extremist Islamic groups such as al Qaeda, and resuscitated terrorists like the militant Islamic State (IS)? It will be not be easy for religious zealots to replicate what the oppression of women, massacre of ethnic and religious minorities, and bans on TV and music looked like two decades ago. While this may be more applicable to the urban areas, an entire generation of Afghans has come of age, especially given technological advantages.
A likely impact of this festering situation could be a civil war between the Taliban and forces loyal to Kabul. The former already controls 69 of the 407 districts of Afghanistan, and are pacing to gain more control. The nature of this war is agitated by Pakistan that vigorously advocates the Taliban cause. Such a scenario makes a spill-over of extremism into neighbouring spaces inevitable. The Americans in the meantime have assured Kabul that they would remain in the region and deploy in a “monitor and strike role.” What this means operationally is intriguing, particularly after two decades of being in Afghanistan. With forces that surged to 83,000 troops, in addition to 32,000 NATO troops, they were unable to fulfil the very same role.
There is a school of thought that believes in the value of US strategic aims, which changed from counter-terrorism to the fallacious idea that they could rebuild the nation in a democratic mould. This strategy may have been the source of insecurity, instability, and Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, and indeed, the failure of US war aims. Was building a democratic state in a place whose indigenous foundations militated against it, a convincing proposition? The conquest of territory in Afghanistan and emerging victorious in tactical engagements was more than probable. It was however virtually impossible to hold the patchwork of tribal principalities down to a centralised government.
The imposition of Western norms without turning to indigenous cultural models of governance and organisation was destined for failure. In retrospect, very little has changed over the past two decades. In fact, the period of bloody turmoil has continued for four decades, since the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Prior to the US invasion of 2001, the fundamentalist Taliban provided refuge to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden from 1996 until 2001. After being ousted, the Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan, leading an insurgency against the government in Kabul for more than nineteen years. At this point, the US pull-out can thus create a power vacuum which will inevitably trigger power plays both internally and externally.
*Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.