The US has completed 25% withdrawal from Afghanistan and by September 2021, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, no residual forces would remain in the country. This leaves the fate of Afghanistan to the Afghan government, Taliban, and local tribal lords.
The tug-of-war for power in Afghanistan has chances to spiral out as the influence of the government sitting in Kabul has failed to overshadow Taliban influence. Taliban forces have started to regroup under a renewed game plan and strategy to seize control of Kabul. This plan also includes a new strategy towards women. They have, however, not renewed their terms and conditions on power-sharing or compromise on their values and beliefs. It appears that the Taliban are more focused on their goal of forwarding their values and beliefs as compared to capturing territory. The chances of them making a compromise on the former has also decreased as the US withdrawal has increased Taliban’s confidence in their values and beliefs. This implies that clashes between the Afghan government, which is often regarded as more secular and liberal than the Taliban, are likely to continue and may even take a turn towards civil war. This civil war could also take a blunt direction given the number of foreign actors involved in Afghanistan such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State – both could catalyze the pace of violence like falling dominoes. Violence could also get out of control due to the limited capacity of the Afghan forces to prevent internal clashes. Even if the Afghan forces are geared with the latest military equipment, funding, and training, it will only be a matter of time until their “might” expires under Taliban assault. Nonetheless, some strategists are optimistic that the Afghan forces can defeat the Taliban, however, due to their limited capacity as compared to the latter, having the upper hand would be a challenge for them.
Now that the US is withdrawing, leaving the fate of Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves, three scenarios are likely. First, an ideal scenario, although the least likely, would be that the Taliban are defeated by the Afghan forces militarily followed by elections that brings in a new democratically elected government in Kabul. Another option could be the formation of a coalition government that collectively rebuilds Afghanistan and regains public trust.
Second, given regrouping and reorientation of the Taliban, they could gather enough strength to fight back and overrun the Afghan government. This can ultimately provide them an easy route to sit in Kabul without the burden of elections. This option is more likely than the first one.
Third, the scenario that is most likely to happen is that the country could fall into a chaotic civil war with several internal and external state and non-state actors involved. This scenario is the most likely one as the political elite within Afghanistan have failed to reconcile, negotiate, and mend their differences. Compromise by the Afghan political elite is a change that is likely to happen at the slowest pace.
If the Taliban has learned anything from their experience with the US forces, it is to remain fully committed to their inflexible stance. This rigidity may have cost them millions of lives, but it is an acceptable one than the cost of giving up their values and beliefs. Given these potential scenarios, any step forward in Afghanistan’s case would require great caution. These also leave peacemakers with limited options to stabilize the country.
Addressing Taliban demands would, therefore, need to take priority, as without fulfilling their demands, reduction in violence is unlikely, hence a highly volatile Afghanistan and a destabilized region could be accepted. While their demands are somewhat being catered to through peace talks, there is still a need for an intra-Afghan dialogue where the parties make compromises for the sake of national and regional peace and stability.
The current situation shows that peace in Afghanistan is up to them and there exit massive trust deficit between the intra-state key holders. The Moscow, Doha, and the potential Istanbul talks being unsuccessful would result in the Taliban gaining political supremacy as well as territorial control in the country, if the peace process fails, and the country is plunged into civil war and chaos, the region would clearly be disadvantaged. Some of Afghanistan’s neighbors would be prompted to intervene, covertly, in order to safeguard their interests. This would raise the risk of regional proxy war, and produce more of the deleterious consequences that so often emerge when other countries meddle in Afghanistan. India would provide backing to anti-Taliban actors. China and Russia, which have less of a footprint in Afghanistan, May quietly provide assistance to other friendly actors. Seems highly likely that Afghanistan will be rapidly dragged into a civil war, and in this context, that different ethnic structures (such as the Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks) are arming up under various political entities and through their own means
Undoubtedly, the Taliban will use all of its power to push the US to withdraw from the country and will want to come to the negotiating table after the fact to apply pressure. However, it can be predicted that the Taliban now has two different factions, “traditionalist” and “innovative,” within itself as well. Traditionalists still argue that the status of the Taliban which fights for the “emirate” idea, should be preserved moving forward. The mindset more open to innovation and change, on the other hand, is aware that Afghanistan today is not the same as Afghanistan from 9/11. For this reason, they have been voicing demands such as an “emirate” recently, and on the contrary, they believe that they should be more tolerant.
Intra-Afghan political cohesion concerning to the Afghanistan peace process is one of the key impediments that hamper the prospects of peaceful political stalemate at the state level. The drive for perpetual peace in Afghanistan has brought Kabul’s political leadership at odds and subverted the US.-backed government, which has deemed the chances of inclusive consensus-building among the key stakeholders. As matter of fact, all the entities have separate proposed plans that are aligned to their personal choices and interests, rather than for the state. Taliban’s at Centre stage, Warlords as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdur Rashid Dostum, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has his own multiphase plan. The apparitions are riotously dissimilar in magnitude and depth. Nevertheless, there is one converging aspect of the establishment of a transitional government in Kabul, with many of Ghani’s political adversaries aiming to gain more power for themselves amid such strategies. With exception of the Taliban, the central government in Kabul however seems confident to overcome the widening divisions and vows to foster uniformity among intra-state key stakeholders.
The Taliban’s desire, as well as its definition of peace, is the handing over of the entirety of the Afghan government to the Taliban. And in case the Taliban takes over the government, various practices would be put into effect and the emergence of new migration waves that would likely consist of a minimum of 2 million refugees. Ghani, who follows much more moderate policies against the West and NATO compared to Karzai, and willing to let the United Nations take control and hold an election in 3-6 months; we will not interfere with the voters.”
Dr. Abdullah, on the other hand, defends the idea of a provisional government and an interim prime minister. Thus, he supports the view that the 2-2.5 years should be taken, the constitution should be reviewed again, a neutral election commission should be reestablished, preparations should be made, and a government without elections should be formed. Taliban, however, opposes both ideas; it does not accept the holding of democratic elections or the establishment of a provisional government in any way, shape, or form, and it wants to take over the cabinet. If the Taliban came to the negotiation table, it would lose; it’s currently only winning through uprisings and rebellions.
Regional peace is not the responsibility of a single state rather it demands collective efforts and strategies. Neighbouring states must play a prominent and proactive role in this regard. If Afghanistan descends into absolute turmoil after US withdrawal, it can be costly not only in terms of finances but also in terms of proliferating terrorism and its aftermath, such as refugees and smuggling to name a few. Moreover, to move the country from the Stone Age to the present era, there is going to be an urgent requirement of international financial support that is sustainable and progressive. This financial support must go into developing Afghanistan’s infrastructure, education system, health facilities, housing, and business sector in addition to the support towards strengthening government institutions.
Moreover, the focus of international financial support must be the future generations of Afghanistan. For such an ideal yet doable situation to bear fruit, constructive support of internal and external factions involved would be a precondition.