The fate of Afghanistan has been a perennial issue, decided often by outside powers rather than by the Afghan people. As far back as 1908, British conservative statesman George Curzon declared at the annual dinner of the Central Asian Society in London that, in his estimation, ‘in fifty or a hundred years hence, Afghanistan will be as vital and important a question as it is now’. Curzon’s prediction rang as true then as it does today.
When Curzon uttered his words, Great Britain was grappling with the question of how to tame Afghanistan as a vital geographic entity according to its geopolitical preferences in support of its South Asian colonial layout in rivalry with Tsarist Russia. The British failed, as did the Tsarists’ Soviet successors in invading and occupying Afghanistan for a decade in the 1980s.
Today, the United States—the third major power of the last two centuries—is struggling with what to do with Afghanistan. After fighting in the country for two decades, the U.S., backed by NATO and non-NATO allies, wants a military exit but, if it can help it, without the humiliation that the British and Soviets faced and, indeed, the United States itself had to weather over Vietnam.
In September 2018, the U.S. commenced a serious effort to achieve its objective through a political settlement of the Afghanistan conflict. Its machinations enabled President Donald Trump—a longstanding critic of America’s involvement in Afghanistan—to reduce the U.S. troop deployment from 14,000 to the current level of 2,500. But so far there has been little progress towards a workable and lasting political settlement, for several reasons.
For a start, the whole Trump approach, conducted by his Afghan-American envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has proved to be misguided. After some 18 months of dialogue with America’s erstwhile terrorist enemy, the Pakistan-backed radical Islamic Taliban, and shuttle diplomacy to build regional and international consensus in support of his mission, Khalilzad could only secure the U.S.–Taliban peace agreement of February 2020. The agreement was badly flawed. It essentially provided for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 and the immediate release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails. This was in return for a Taliban pledge not to allow any hostile actions emanating from Afghanistan against the U.S. and its allies and to free 1,000 Afghan soldiers in the militia’s captivity.
The deal was publicly touted as a pathway to a political settlement to be hammered out among the Afghan parties. It elevated the Taliban as America’s partner in peace, but did not conditionally require the group to declare a universal ceasefire and negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government (which was not a party to the agreement and was rejected by the Taliban as a ‘puppet’) and other concerned Afghan parties for a lasting political settlement.
Second, the U.S. side wrongly assumed that the Taliban had sufficient territorial control to prevent any hostile actions. It also placed too much trust in the Taliban to sever its longstanding intimate links with al-Qaeda and, for that matter, with a number of other destructive and criminal groups, including the rival Khorasan branch of Islamic State (IS-K) and narcotics producers and traffickers, from whose activities the Taliban derive significant benefits. Since the signing of the peace deal, the U.S. intelligence services and the United Nations have confirmed the Taliban’s continued camaraderie with most of these entities, al-Qaeda in particular.
Finally, in concluding the deal, Washington paid little attention to the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. The political, economic and security situation in the country had been declining steadily, especially since the withdrawal of most U.S. and NATO allied troops by the end of 2014. The government in Kabul has remained weak, divided and kleptocratic, while its security forces, suffering from increased desertion and fatalities, can’t hold back the dam for too long without support from foreign forces and American air cover when needed.
The socially mosaicked Afghanistan has historically been a land of strongmen and personalised politics and this has not substantially changed, robbing the country of the potential for national unity and consensus on the form and functions of the government. It continues to be a weak state with strong societies.
The U.S.–Taliban peace deal obliged the Taliban not to fight the American and allied forces but gave them carte blanche to escalate their operations against government forces and strategic targets, resulting in higher military and civilian fatalities over the past year. Instability, insecurity, kidnapping and the targeted assassinations of enlightened religious figures, journalists and civil activists (most of whom have been critical of the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani) have lately become the order of the day. The Taliban have denied targeted assassinations, but the suspicion has fallen on them and IS-K as well as the government. Today, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt and dangerous countries in which to live.
U.S. President Joe Biden has inherited a terrible Afghan legacy. While he also wants to see the end of America’s entanglement in the unwinnable and costly war—the longest in U.S. history—he is conscious of not tarnishing the image of the U.S. and NATO as ostensibly a formidable military alliance. His administration has said that it will review the U.S.–Taliban peace agreement to ensure that the Taliban meet their end of the bargain. However, the Taliban have made it clear that they feel they have fulfilled their commitment under the agreement by not fighting the U.S. and allied troops, and that they would view a delay in the total foreign troop withdrawal by May as a violation of the deal, obliging them to resume fighting those troops.
At least three scenarios are possible in the foreseeable future.
The first is that the Biden team stays on course with the troop withdrawal, retaining a residual force to protect the U.S. mission in Kabul and conduct counterterrorism operations to prevent hostile actions from Afghanistan. The U.S. and its allies would have to continue funding the Afghan forces to the tune of billions of dollars to enable them to rebuff a unilateral Taliban takeover. But this picture underestimates the psychological, economic and security impact of the withdrawal, overestimates the capacity of Afghan forces, and overlooks the weaknesses of the Afghan government as a cohesive, inclusive, effective and popular force.
In the second scenario, the Afghan government could collapse and the country could plunge into an internecine conflict, with Afghanistan’s neighbours backing different client groups—something that occurred in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet surrogate government of Najibullah in 1992. There are non-governmental forces that would seek to deter a victory by the Taliban. In the process, the Taliban might gain the upper hand but wouldn’t be able to acquire more than a limited writ over the country. The conflict would continue, with the international community facing serious dilemmas in providing assistance to a Taliban-run government.
The third is that the Biden administration is able to strike a deal with Pakistan to cajole the Taliban to reach an agreement in the Doha talks for a power-sharing arrangement. This scenario is likely, provided it enjoys regional consensus, involving a reduction in U.S.–Iranian hostility with Washington’s return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. However, the resultant governing system would be tenuous, rendering Afghanistan a feeble actor prone to the influence of regional players, and of Pakistan in particular.
All of these scenarios are deeply troublesome. Each one points to the survival of Afghanistan as a seriously disrupted state.
The geopolitical vitality of Afghanistan is rooted in the country’s geographical location as a hub of connectivity. The most feasible way that Afghanistan can be saved as a potentially stable and functioning state is for the U.S. to make a responsible withdrawal. That would require a universal ceasefire and a comprehensive political settlement under a transitional technocratic government, made up of non-partisan, talented, dedicated and clean personalities from the ranks of the younger generation of Afghans. Such figures don’t carry the excess baggage that has paralysed the current crop of power holders. Otherwise, Curzon’s concerns about the Afghanistan question stand to haunt the Afghan people and outside actors for years to come.