The conditions predicted to emerge after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kabul do not bode well for Islamabad
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent pronouncements on “modesty” and “obscenity,” as well as his declaration of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden as a “martyr” during a parliamentary address last year may well be part of the Pakistani government’s preparations for the “new” Afghanistan that is expected to emerge after the exit of the Americans from the war-torn state.
In an interview with Afghan broadcaster ToloNews, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also floundered at a question on whether or not he considered bin Laden a “martyr.” This was apparently not accidental. His substantive pause before passing the question showed deliberate ambiguity on an issue that demanded a clear answer: how can a terrorist be a martyr? Yet he would not commit, perhaps out of fear of backlash from within the PTI ranks and his conservative constituency. His noncommittal stance on a person responsible for thousands of deaths globally throws some light on the uncertainty surrounding the exit of the U.S. from Afghanistan. It was echoed by the prime minister in an interview with journalist Jonathan Swan, during which Khan said he feared a “civil war” in Afghanistan if a political settlement were not achieved in Afghanistan. His fears are not unwarranted; the world is also scared of the post-U.S. scenario in Afghanistan.
According to recent research conducted by America’s George Mason University, the following scenarios are expected after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan:
- The current constitution will be thrown out. The Taliban want profound social and political changes. The Afghan army, or the Afghan National Defense and Security Force, is undermined not merely by a lack of capacity but also by pervasive corruption and factions built around particular commanders and patrons. With the exception of the badly overused Afghan Special Security Forces, conventional forces and police have rarely taken the fight to the Taliban. Under the militants’ heavy pressure, many units have been striking accommodation deals with them. This trend may accelerate, especially if the Taliban manage to maintain enough discipline to avoid reprisals against units that make such deals.
- The Taliban have repeatedly taken over provincial capitals and currently encircle several of them, with the capacity to rapidly put pressure on several more. Moreover, Kabul’s control of some provincial and district capitals is often only in name, with officials hunkered down in compounds, as the Taliban control their access in and out of town and life on the street. It was only the U.S. Air Force that kept the Taliban from holding on to the provincial capitals it had previously managed to capture, such as Kunduz and Ghazni. The big question is whether the Taliban can pounce on, and conquer, several provincial capitals at the same time—if so, the ANDSF will struggle dramatically and disintegration pressures would grow.
- The Taliban’s top military commanders are unlikely to split off at any scale that would threaten the group for some time—at least not until actual national power arrangements are struck. Then, conceivably, some unsatisfied commanders could throw in their lot with the Islamic State in Khorasan group or, more likely, act independently. Another critical factor is the Afghan political elite. It is expected to continue factionalizing and seek favor with the Taliban. In 2021, the divisions within, and politicking of, the Afghan elite only intensified as various powerbrokers jockeyed for key positions in an interim government the United States had promoted through the ill-fated Istanbul process.
- Key powerbrokers in Afghanistan have been attempting to come together with President Ashraf Ghani in a national unity council that would demonstrate unison to the Taliban. For the past two years, the Taliban has been intensely negotiating with powerbrokers not just in its southern Pashtun strongholds, but also with Tajiks and other minority politicians in the north. Those negotiations have been going on far longer than the unity council negotiations.
- The Taliban delays striking bargains with Afghan powerbrokers until it has visibly taken more territory, particularly several provincial capitals. Currently, the Taliban is in a highly auspicious position around at least 12 provincial capitals. With the end of U.S. air support for the Afghan military, the Taliban will likely be in a position to pounce on several provincial capitals simultaneously, max out Afghan Special Security Forces’ capacity for pushback, and take control of several of them. A cascade of detrimental events could unfold, including powerbrokers fleeing Afghanistan (as they were on the cusp of doing in 2015 when the Taliban temporarily took Kunduz City and seemed poised to move on to the province of Takhar) and defecting ANDSF commanders and units cutting their own deals with the Taliban.
- Even Kabul might fall to the Taliban quickly—or the city’s streets could see a bloodbath, as two decades of accumulated local resentments over alleged land theft after 2001 turn neighbors and neighborhoods against each other.
- Political powerbrokers in the north are substantially divided. More importantly, the Taliban have built inroads into the north. The group is militarily powerful in Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakshan, and Takhar provinces. It has cultivated Tajik cadres as well as northern Pashtuns alienated by what they see as the discriminatory rule of non-Pashtun majorities in the northern provinces. These actors are either members of formal Taliban units or Taliban proxy militias in the north. Some of the existing militia forces, such as the former Hezb-e-Islami, would also likely defect to the Taliban (having previously been flipped to the Afghan government side).
- There is no solution from the outside to Afghanistan’s violence and the ascendance of the Taliban. International engagement is likely to influence developments in Afghanistan at the margins. Various countries have some capacity to shape the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the country’s powerbrokers. However, their actions are more likely to intensify violence, rather than temper it, even though all regional actors are against civil war, an Islamic emirate, or a government exclusively run by the Taliban.
Important note: The arrival of the Taliban into formal government in Afghanistan could reduce Pakistan’s leverage over the group, especially if influential international actors maintain working relations with the group. Even before a rise to formal power, if the Taliban are able to move their political leaders and their families from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Islamabad’s leverage would decline. The balance of power between Pakistan and the Taliban would also be influenced by internal rebalancing of power within the insurgents of the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras, the Haqqanis, military chief Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, older leaders such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the Taliban’s field commanders.
Taliban and Pakistan
Two-term senator Farhatullah Babar, writing in The Friday Times on June 4, 2021, has sounded alarm for Pakistan: “The Afghan Taliban have historic relations with Pakistan’s security forces as well as with armed groups like TTP, LeT, and others and those links have not been completely severed. The so-called Dawn Leaks was nothing but an expression of deep anguish by the civilian political leadership. But it led to the chasing out of office of a legitimate prime minister. Worries that there is no course correction persist and haunt the present moment. Since October 2001, we have welcomed and hosted Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders like Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Mansoor Akhtar, Mullah Haibatullah and countless more but have denied Quetta Shura, Haqqani network and safe havens on our soil.
“General Musharraf used to tell the world: Give us the addresses and contact numbers of the Shura and the Taliban leaders and we will take them out. Offending common intelligence comes too easily to our security establishment. The mindset has not changed. Over the past decades, the relationship between Taliban and Pakistan’s security establishment has grown so close that some have even likened it to the relationship between Tehran and Hezbollah.
“Proxy wars were waged across its borders through non-state homegrown militants with close links to Taliban. We denied it. But the truth is that proxy wars have been a main driver of continuing conflict in the Pakhtun belt. Whatever is happening in the country today, whether continued militarization of ex-FATA or the opaque internment centers, or the phenomenal rise of extremist sectarian groups, it is the direct outcome of this disastrous policy. Frustrated, the tribal youth finally rose a few years ago. They expressed their anger using metaphors that could not have been imagined a few years ago.”