The killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 was a major success for US President Barack Obama, one that marked the US military superiority and, at the same time, opened an exit from Afghanistan. With Bin Laden out, it was possible to say that the victims of 9/11 had been vindicated. However, exiting the country required a rearrangement of relations on the ground, both vis-à-vis the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Fight to talk, rule to fight?
Already under Hamid Karzai, and even more so after Ashraf Ghani’s contested election in 2009, it emerged that successful negotiations required a delicate balance among local governance, diplomacy and military success. Afghan leaders were afraid that America would end up trading support for the government for its own direct interests vis-à-vis the Taliban to end the military mission.
The US, in turn, was impatient to see decisive reforms from the legitimate rulers, which included winning respect from the insurgents on the battleground, improving administration and the rule of law and showing increasing autonomy from the foreigners. The ability of the government to fight, the quality of local government and the willingness of the US and NATO to remain engaged were the main elements determining the credibility for any negotiation. The logical steps, in succession, were to improve the fighting ability, get the negotiations going and then link a final agreement to the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Building the army, once again
On the military side, having gone through the “surge” asked for by General Stanley McChrystal and then by General David Petraeus, it was now crucial to refocus on training the Afghan forces. In 2014, after years of repeated US attempts at building up the security forces, the NATO mission was remodelled as a training scheme, giving way to Operation Resolute Support. This was meant as training for the Afghan army and partnering with it in the fight against the Taliban. The same year, Operation Enduring Freedom was brought to a close.
The international approach to building local forces had been continuously shifting in both training and tactics for years, making it hard to consolidate gains or even count the real number of serving troops. Reliable soldiers had to be literate, well paid and committed, all things that were hard to achieve with the short courses meant to arm new units in a matter of months, replacing the dead and the deserters on a routine basis. The low starting point, together with the different approaches and tactics followed by the various partners on the ground, gave results of varying quality, but never managed to achieve a real sense of belonging inside the Afghan army. This, after all, had been the same problem plaguing the Soviets during their own attempt at occupation.
The coupling of Western training and special forces with local ones, however, did create a new military balance, bringing down the alarming rate of casualties among international forces and increasing the pressure on the Taliban with massive drone attacks. The aim was not to make this an open-ended phase, but to provide enough military equilibrium to give cover to the start of negotiations and get in sight of the exit route.
From Baradar’s liberation to August 15, 2021
A decisive move towards this final scenario was the liberation of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, first captured by Pakistan in 2010 and then released at the US’ request in 2018. After Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, Baradar appeared to be the center of gravity of the new Taliban line up, having enough clout among the military wing as well as the Pakistani interests to hold a common line in the Taliban world. It is true that this step materialized under Donald Trump’s presidency, but the script had been planned before, at least since it had become clear that the war had no single military solution.
Where Trump departed from the script is that he deliberately chose to use the US’ leverage for a bilateral withdrawal, without coordinating with NATO allies and not even pretending to keep the Afghan government onboard, something that Obama, in spite of all difficulties, had tried to do. The 2020 agreement signed by Mike Pompeo with Mullah Baradar was not linked to an agreement between the insurgents and the government, so it actually reduced the incentive for a political settlement among Afghans themselves. Ideally, it would have been best to cumulate a political agreement with the international withdrawal in one single “package deal”, but without that conditionality the only decisive ground between the government and the insurgents remained war.
So, as soon as the US and NATO withdrew, the weaker side lost. The miscalculation by Ghani has been that the US would not drop him, while the US and its chief negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the main actor in the creation of the post-9/11 Constitution and much more, pretended that the Doha negotiations really stood a chance in managing the transition of power.
Interestingly, though, the stated perception among local players remained that the entire negotiation process was Afghan-owned, despite the US’ bilateral agreement with the Taliban. The ex-post confirmation is Ghani’s message after his flight from Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, “The Taliban have won the judgement of sword and guns and now they are responsible for protecting the countrymen’s honor, wealth and self-esteem”. In other words, “you won, now it is your turn to defend Afghans”. Local players knew they were fighting a civil war with the help of foreign supporters on both sides and in their own way believed they could control them both as needed.
Thus, the fall of Kabul on August 15th, marked the end of two wars: the one between the US, NATO and other allies against the Taliban and possibly the civil war among Afghans themselves. In their own way, local actors saw the war as an internal confrontation with the support of foreigners, following the pattern of fragmentation of the previous years. They both managed to exploit their supporters as much as possible, pointing to their internal foes as the reason for extracting successive concessions from their patrons. This complements the widespread feeling by internationals that, no matter with whom or on what they were working for in Afghanistan, they were always welcome as “guests” and never as “rulers”. The same thing had already been experienced by the US during the anti-Soviet war. Any external power trying to exploit the new situation should be weary of this pattern.
Afghans for Afghans?
Without foreigners on the ground, at least for a while, the Afghan-centric rationale is now stronger and this is the very reason Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah stand a chance to come back on the scene. With their main rival out (Ghani), they could now act as guarantors of a new order in the interest of Afghans and vis-à-vis the internationals. Allowing them in the final government, or close to it, would be a propaganda master stroke by the new Taliban rulers, ultimately giving partial credit to the international effort and facilitating contacts with the UN and world powers. The actual result will depend on the internal balance among the different components of the Taliban. Yet the position that previous West-supported figures will hold, if any, will be telling of the intentions of the new rulers.
Where is this Afghan-centric process leading to? It helps to remember that “Afghan” is the Persian word for “Pashto”: the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtuns and in order to keep power and avoid the risk of a civil war, they must reassure all other communities that times have changed.
Strangely enough, the US insistence on an Afghan-owned process in Doha has produced the climate for accepting a new agreement amongst the many components of Afghanistan, even if brokered by the Taliban. The insurgents themselves have learnt the lesson and held talks with their former opponents before starting the final campaign leading to Kabul.
At the same time, the Talibans’ ultimate success is now possible only if they manage in what the US and its allies have only partially achieved: governance through a viable administration, functioning schools, basic human rights, equitable justice, reliable electricity, economic prospects and safe roads. This is a tall order for a movement that has spent the last 20 years perfecting the arts of fighting and propaganda, often using the same American techniques devised to win “hearts and minds”.
Hearts, minds and stomachs
Indeed, now that they are in the control room, the Taliban suddenly need to fill stomachs, too, and avoid that thousands of armed, galvanized and traumatized foot soldiers turn into new warlords or terrorists, creating disorder on an unimaginable scale. Transitioning to a peace economy is extremely difficult for a movement based on a war economy. Social challenges are serious and the immediate risk is that if the Taliban do not manage to increase the supply of goods and resources, they will revert to reducing the demand, simply by facilitating the outflow of people, that has been growing unabatedly for the last two decades. The outflow of Afghans has indeed been constantly growing during the last twenty years, although the phenomenon has not attracted the attention of Western media as much as during the frantic airlift from Kabul this last August.
Opium cultivation will also be an important signal about by new Taliban leadership. During their 1996-2001 rule they decidedly cut production, only to discover that the rise in prices made it useful to resume exports as a source of cash during the insurgency. Diversifying agriculture and fighting opium production will be a testing ground with international donors.
In general, despite the security questions posed by different armed movements such as ISIS-K, identifying the new “development model” now resurfaces as the most urgent issue. For the last 20 years, the attempt has been to shape Afghanistan better than its neighbors, at least by Western terms. Now, considering that the West has changed too, a different model also seems palatable. “Pakistan plus something”, or “Iran less something” have both been voiced as possible alternatives, as long as international security is not threatened. Seeing where the Taliban will position themselves on this continuum will be a telling signal of future developments in Asia.
A new test for the concert of powers
The US and its allies have stepped out of Afghanistan, but this has only increased the country’s importance for its neighbors and internationally. The test for international coordination, if anything to avoid the resurgence of problems, is now more important than before.
If they are wise, all major world players should by now have realized that attempts at fighting proxy wars in Afghanistan eventually backfire. Silent coordination to manage the neutrality of major powers, both inside and around the country, would be best advisable, but is far from granted and requests a great deal of willingness, concessions and self-restraint by many actors. This, in theory, should be the hour for the UN to step in as a super partes actor, to channel aid and monitor human rights, while making sure that international institutions use their role in the country effectively, encouraging change but avoiding “mission creep”. Yet even this requires major powers to reach consensus on letting the UN work and cooperate through it, to keep at bay the centrifugal forces and interests that operate in the region. This would require a new approach to multilateralism.
International attention will remain high, due to the competing interests of regional and global actors. One hopes it will not end up strangling the usual victims, ordinary Afghan citizens, for the fifth decade in a row.