Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan: Reading of Pointers
Brigadier (Retd.) Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Published on 27 May 2021)
Currently the world is anxiously trying to ascertain: (a) whether US (along with NATO) will actually and completely withdraw its military from Afghanistan, even if by November this year; (b) will the US–installed Ashraf Ghani government succeed in getting any role in the post–withdrawal political dispensation in Afghanistan; (c) will the US’–organised, equipped and trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) be able to resist/stop Afghanistan Taliban’s further advance/onslaught whenever launched by them; and (d) what are the chances of peace returning to Afghanistan during the withdrawal and in the post–withdrawal period.
Very obviously, no clear–cut answers to these questions can be provided yet. However, a careful study of the following related aspects does provide the pointers to the sought for answers.
US’ Intention(s) and capabilities.
Internal dynamics of Afghanistan’s body politic.
Spoilers of the Peace Process.
Comparative operational capability and strength of ANSF and Afghanistan Taliban.
Afghanistan Taliban’s current political strength and policy inclinations.
Possible role of regional countries/powers and of European powers.
US’ Intention (s) and Capabilities
Undoubtedly US launched its military aggression with the sole intention to militarily occupy Afghanistan and plant a US–pliant government in the country, with the aim of using the thus ‘pliant’ Afghanistan to dominate the surrounding countries – Pakistan, Iran, China, and Central Asian States (geopolitically the ‘soft underbelly’ of Russia).
For that purpose US, along with NATO, initially deployed a massive over I, 00, 000 strong high–tech military force for launching brutal military assaults on the resisting Afghanistan Taliban for years. US also planted its pliant government in the country, and commenced deploying US’ organised, equipped, and trained ANSF to confront and subsequently defeat Afghanistan Taliban when US and NATO ultimately plan to withdraw their military from the country. However, Afghanistan Taliban continued their prolonged resistance and US and NATO were compelled to gradually reduce their military presence in the country, giving more operational responsibility to ANSF.
Even that plan did not work; ANSF, also known as Afghan National Defence and Security Force (ANDSF), failed to meet that objective. Rather, it continued to suffer heavy losses while confronting Afghanistan Taliban (US authorities termed it violence by Afghanistan Taliban). And, by the year 2019, according to US’ Department of Defense report to US Congress dated December 2019, that situation worsened to the extent that, “Sustained levels of violence and ANDSF casualties contributed to attrition outpacing recruitment and retention” (1).
After such irreversible failure despite continued efforts for about 19 years, US was compelled to modify their aim to a “minimum aim”, the plan for attainment of which included US’ acceptance of Afghanistan Taliban’s key demand of complete withdrawal of US and NATO military from Afghanistan, leaving it to Afghanistan Taliban and other Afghans to decide upon subsequent political dispensation in the thus independent Afghanistan.
However, US still intends to somehow retain its “political leverage” in the country even if with a smaller “footprint”.
For that purpose, according to media reports and comments, US is trying to persuade Afghanistan Taliban (a) to allow US to retain two US’ military bases north of Kabul, and (b) to allow the US–planted Ashraf Ghani government’s role in the desired interim government which should be established in Afghanistan under which subsequently elections be held for the post–withdrawal political dispensation of the country. Obviously both these US’ demands militate against the key demand of Afghanistan Taliban i.e. removal of all foreign occupational influence (military and planted government) from the country; hence chances of Afghanistan Taliban accepting these US’ demands are too meager.
It is this veiled US’ intention which has caused hindrance in the much desired Afghanistan peace process.
Internal Dynamics of Afghanistan’s Body Politic
Being a completely tribal society, internal dynamics of Afghanistan’s body politic is quite complex. However, some of its aspects are more relevant to the current scenario in Afghanistan and the peace process. These are briefly mentioned below.
US’ Library of Congress Federal Research Division 2001 report, cited in PMC’s report (2) of 28 March 2012 highlighted that in Afghanistan “Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group, accounting for about 42% of the population, with Tajiks (27%), Hazaras (9%), Uzbeks (9%), Aimaqs (4%), Turkmen people (4%), Baluch (2%), and other groups (4%)”.
Pashtuns have always been the dominating force/rulers in Afghanistan. As for Tajiks, only once a Tajik leader Habibullah Kalakani famously known as ‘Bacha-e Saqao’ got the chance to capture and rule Kabul. However his rule lasted only about nine months (17 January–13 October 1929) when he was ousted from power by Pashtuns.
Most Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, have a historically ingrained psyche of not accepting foreign rule/domination at any cost. They continue fighting generation after generation till its removal from Afghanistan.
However Tajiks, particularly their leadership, have often shown their willingness to accept foreign rule/dominance for getting their own place in the foreign–planted political dispensation in Afghanistan. They did so when Soviet Union (USSR) attacked and captured Afghanistan. According to reports, Tajiks’ famous politician and military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had even entered in a secret deal with the invading USSR forces for retaining his control of Panjsher Valley north of Kabul at the cost of letting unhindered passage of USSR troops through that valley. USSR–planted Kabul government had also rewarded Tajiks by recruiting Tajiks in USSR–organised and trained Afghan National Security Forces (especially Armour Corps and Airforce units). And again, Tajiks (along with Uzbeks) completely assisted US’ invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. That Tajik–Uzbek coalition is called the ‘Northern Alliance’. For that help, US rewarded both Tajiks and Uzbeks by giving them their place in the US–planted governance/political system in the country. Tajiks’ leader Abdullah Abdullah was appointed in the US–planted government – foreign minister, then Chief Executive (next to President), and now the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Uzbeks’ political leader/military commander Abdul Rashid Dostum was made Marshall in Afghanistan National Army and Vice President in the government.
This track record of Tajiks and their Northern Alliance group clearly reflects the possibility that they may accept to be part of an Afghanistan Taliban–led interim and subsequent government in Afghanistan, if their interests are accommodated even as a junior partner.
Ashraf Ghani, who is presiding the US–planted government, is a political non–entity in Afghanistan’s body politic.
Afghan masses have suffered severe human, material, and economic losses due to the devastating inhuman barbarism of US for about 20 years. Any peace arrangement, provided it being Afghan led/arranged and includes removal of foreign occupation, is most likely to be welcomed by the masses.
Spoilers of the Peace Process
It is obvious that only those countries/elements are the spoilers of the Peace Process whose interests are hurt by US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and establishment of an ‘actually sovereign’ Afghan government in the country.
Currently India is using Afghanistan, obviously in connivance with US’ military in the country, to launch terrorists in Pakistan. India, therefore, is one of the major spoilers of the Peace Process.
US’ Establishment (Pentagon, CIA, and Military Industrial Complex) too is least likely to let Afghanistan completely slip out of US’ total dominance and develop geoeconomic relations with its neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia (US being not friendly with any of these). CIA’s militias in Afghanistan can therefore be used to create turmoil in the country to derail/delay the Peace Process, and to cause destability of the subsequent Afghan government and sabotage the investment/economic activities in Afghanistan of these neighbouring countries.
Details about CIA’s militias in Afghanistan, and the group of some of these militias known as ‘CIA’s Afghan Army’, have obviously been kept secret from public by US. However, in the current scenario of vibrant media and analysts certain details have been sought out and published. One of such publication is the research article titled, “Armed Governance: The case of the CIA–supported Afghan Militias”, published in Small Wars & Insurgencies journal 2021, Vol. 32, No. 3. Some of the extracts of that article specially worth noting are (3):-
- “After 2006, when the Taliban had manifestly revived and insurgency intensified, the US government formally reversed its policy toward militias: local militias should no longer be disbanded but instead supported as a key component in a new counterinsurgency strategy” (p 493);
- “Some militias were not placed under the Ministry of Interior, however, but were run separately by US Special Forces and CIA operatives” (p.494); and,
- “Little is publically known about the CIA Afghan ‘army’. Nevertheless investigative journalists, concerned analyst, and human rights activists have pieced together the covert program’s basic outlines. The ‘army’ has two types of components. One is a set of older units whose relations with the CIA go back to the offensive operation carried out during and immediately after the 2001 invasion. They work closely with the agency. The most powerful of these is the Khost Protection Force (KPF), which operates out of the CIA Camp Chapman in the north eastern province of Khost. Significantly the KPF is an illegal armed group in the sense that its existence has no basis in Afghan law and has no formal place in the state security apparatus or its budge, as the UN has emphasized. A second type unit is the formally designated Special Forces of the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS. They are four main units, numbered from 01 through 04, with its own regional area of operations:” —-. (p.495)”.
It is also worth noting that quite often many credible reports have been mentioning that both these spoilers of Afghanistan Peace Process – India and US’ CIA – mostly operate in connivance with/in the knowledge of Ashraf Ghani government’s premier intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Comparative Operational Capability and Strength of ANSF and Afghanistan Taliban
ANSF/ANDSF comprise Afghan National Army, Afghan Air Force, Afghan national Police, Afghan Local Police, and National Directorate of Security (NDS) (4)
US had planned organistaion and deployment of a 3,52,000 strong ANSF by October 2012. However that target remained unachievable even by 2013 as reported by US’ Military Times (5); and still remains so. In fact as mentioned in the afore–quoted US Department of State report of December 2019, “Sustained levels of violence and ANDSF casualties contributed to attrition outpacing recruitment and retention” (6).
There are many credible papers/reports highlighting the operational inferiority of ANSF against Afghanistan Taliban, and the causes for it. Salient assertion(s) of two of such publications, mentioned below, suffices to draw the right inference.
The research paper titled “Afghanistan’s Security Forces Versus Taliban: A new Assessment, January 2021, Volume 14, Issue 1”, published by Combating Terrorism Center of US’ Military Academy West Point, discusses this issue in detail. However, for the aspect under examination now the abstract of the paper suffices. It asserts (italics added for highlighting), “A key question for the future of Afghanistan is if the United States withdraws the remainder of its forces from the country, would Afghanistan’s security forces or the Taliban be stronger militarily? According to a net assessment conducted by the author across five factors—size, material resources, external support, force employment, and cohesion—the Taliban would have a slight military advantage if the United States withdraws the remainder of its troops from Afghanistan, which would then likely grow in a compounding fashion. (7) This assessment that, after withdrawal of US/NATO, Afghanistan Taliban’s military advantage over ANSF/ANDSF is likely to grow in a compounding fashion is of high significance.
One of the credible articles in this connection is the one published on 25th of last month (April 2021) in US’ magazine POLITICO (8) by Jason Dempsey. He is an Infantry officer; a graduate of the United States Military Academy and PhD in political science from Columbia University; served for over twenty years in the Army, where he last served as Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; served twice in Afghanistan; now he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (9)
With his authentic background knowledge of Afghanistan, US military in Afghanistan, and ANSF/ANDSF, he has discussed in detail the mistakes committed by US’ military and government in Afghanistan. In the context of the aspect under discussion, some of those mentioned below are of significance.
Jason Dempsey has highlighted that despite their high–tech superiority the operational approach of US forces was not suited for achieving their mission of finally defeating Afghanistan Taliban. In that context he mentions a popular phrase among US’ Afghanistan war veterans: “You have the watches, we have the time” is a popular phrase among veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Attributed to a member of the Taliban, the saying highlights the difference between Taliban patience and an American desire to win quickly and go home”.
Highlighting the reasons as to why Afghan forces (ANSF) have been so unsuccessful against Afghanistan Taliban, he asserts that the Afghan forces’ organisation, equipment, and training fits the same wrong approach as that of US/NATO. He asserts, “Instead of building a force that fit Afghanistan, we built an Army of mini-me’s. A force that, like our military, requires massive logistical support and technical capabilities to manage. A force that relies heavily on airpower and armored vehicles to fight an enemy who relies on his feet, IEDs and an AK-47”.
And, he has also pointed out an extremely serious weakness of Afghan forces. He has asserted (italics added for highlighting), “The loyalties of Afghan military officers have never neatly mapped onto the chain of command structure that we copy–and-pasted from our own military doctrine, but lie with either the politicians who got them their jobs or the tribes and ethnic groups that have sustained them through nearly forty years of fighting. As Ryan Evans and others have been suggesting since at least 2012, the fragmentation of the ANSF has never been a question of if, but when and, more important for our interests — how”.
In the case of Afghanistan Taliban, their better operational capability and strength lies in: (a) Pashtuns are the dominant component of Afghanistan Taliban, and their historically ingrained psyche of not accepting foreign rule/domination at any cost provides them the unstoppable driving force to continue fighting to oust US’ foreign occupation of Afghanistan; (b) though Afghanistan Taliban are composed of different tribes, yet this commonality of the overriding urge (amongst all of them) of ousting foreign occupation, provides them very strong cohesion, loyalty, and unity of command; (c) their historical adeptness for guerilla warfare and capability to switch over to ‘set piece’ attacks when required mostly outmatches the ANSF whose operational capability is greatly dependant on massive logistics and high–tech support; and (d) due to their gradually changing public administration policies, Afghanistan Taliban have started getting moral support from the masses, especially in the districts which are under their rule/domination – that certainly is highly significant in further enhancing their operational capabilities.
This significant aspect of the gradually developing public administration system of Afghanistan Taliban, and consequentially increasing support of Afghan masses, has been confirmed by many credible reports/papers. Two of those are the ones published by the US’ Congress–founded and Washington–based United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and the other by the European–funded and Kabul–based research organisation Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).
The summary of the USIP report (10) dated 30 April 2020 mentioned the following assertions (italics added for highlighting):-
- As the Taliban gained and consolidated their hold over territory, they were forced to become responsible for the well–being of local communities.
- Even as the Taliban leadership remained focused on military objectives, in recent years they began to develop policies to deliver education and health services in particular, in some cases reversing earlier policies that denied these services.
- A study of several diverse districts across Afghanistan reveals that the Taliban leadership has attempted to establish a certain uniformity in its governance of territory largely or partly under its control.
- For example, while the Taliban have always allowed health officials to work in their areas, in part because they too need these services, they have taken increasing ownership of how these services are provided.
- The Taliban initially opposed government schools, but they later developed policies that allowed schools to function, as well as permitting girls to attend school to age twelve.
Two of the following facts, mentioned in the summary of 19th October 2020 AAN research paper (11) related to Andar District of Ghazni Province, are noteworthy:-
- About Afghanistan Taliban commanders, it is mentioned that “commanders play sweeping roles, including constituting the district’s supervisory commission, staffing various sectoral commissions to do with health, education, collecting ‘taxes’, advising on public morality and addressing local dispute.
- And, it also mentioned the highly significant finding of the research that (italics added for highlighting): “The one ‘service’ provided by the Taleban and appreciated by the population is justice. People regard Taleban–provided justice as faster, more accessible and less corrupt than that of the Afghan government. At the same time there is no systematic way to register cases with the Taleban and diverse local Taleban and non–Taleban actors become active in adjudicating cases”.
Afghanistan Taliban’s Current Political Strength and Policy Inclinations
According to credible reports, by now Afghanistan Taliban have attained markedly
strong political strength in Afghanistan. That aspect is highlighted by following facts:-
According to the 13th February this year (2021) report by Afghanistan’s news channel TOLO News, the survey conducted between 30th November last year (2020) and 3rd February this year (2021) showed that: (a) “the Taliban controls at least 52 percent of the country’s territory while 59 percent population lives in areas under government control”. “The survey conducted by Pajhwok Afghan News shows that the Afghan government controls 46 percent of the territory”. “The survey shows that the areas under the Taliban control are 337,000 square kilometers, while the areas under the government’s control are 297,000 square kilometers, but 18,000 square kilometers is said to be under control of none of the parties”(12);
As mentioned earlier, the gradually transforming public administration policies applied by Afghanistan Taliban in the areas under their control have earned appreciation and moral support of the Afghan masses; and
- The active role now being played by Russia (besides Pakistan, China, Iran and UAE) to assist Afghanistan Taliban in their Peace Process negotiations with US clearly shows the gains Afghanistan Taliban have made in the realm of international diplomacy.
Currently Afghanistan Taliban are negotiating about the Peace Process with this position of strength. However they are also reflecting pragmatism – sticking with their position of strength on the key issues of their principled stands/positions, but ‘accommodating’ on procedural matters. One of those sticking points is their refusal to accept US’ political haggling with Afghanistan Taliban for accepting US’ demand for giving a governmental role to the US–planted Ashraf Ghani government in the transitional interim government, whereas Afghanistan Taliban’s principled position is that Ashraf Ghani government, being foreign–planted, is illegitimate.
Statements given by Afghanistan Taliban spokesman and US’ representative Zalmay Khalilzad after their recent meetings in Doha reflect that sticking point, as also the pragmatism in Afghanistan Taliban policy inclinations.
According to the report published by Arab News of 8th of this month (May 2021), Afghanistan Taliban spokesman announced, “We think that, since the US has lost the war, it wants to reach its goals here through political means, but this is impossible. Afghans have the will and independence to decide their own fate”. And, “the Taliban were eager to settle the Afghan crisis through talks and accused Kabul and Washington of “hindering the peace process” by breaching the Doha agreement on the exit of troops, the release of further 7,000 Taliban inmates from government jails and the removal of their leaders from black list”. However he also announced that “The Taliban are not seeking a monopoly of power in Afghanistan”. (13)
US’ representative Zalmay Khalilzad also mentioned after the recent meeting in Doha that “The Taliban have reason not to push for a military victory and instead pursue a negotiated political settlement that could give them international legitimacy and removal from certain American and United Nations sanctions”. (14)
Possible Role of Regional Countries/Powers and of European Powers
All of the countries/powers neighbouring Afghanistan, i.e. Pakistan, Iran, China, Central Asian States and Russia, are keenly interested in the success of Peace Process and return of peace and stability in Afghanistan, irrespective whether the interim and subsequently elected government in the country is Afghanistan Taliban–led or coalition. Some of these countries/powers are already in the process of economic investment/interaction in the country, and all are desirous to enhance economic interaction/investment once peace returns.
However, India is averse to Afghanistan Taliban getting any part in Afghanistan’s political dispensation, as also to increased influence of Pakistan and China in Afghanistan including its possible inclusion in China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – hence the chances of increased role of India as spoiler of the Peace Process. Possibility also cannot be ruled out of US creating infighting and chaos in Afghanistan, through CIA’s afore–mentioned proxies and certain ‘purchased’ tribal warlords, at any stage to pressurize Afghanistan Taliban to submit to US’ demands.
Still, there is much higher probability that despite such spoiler activities the collective efforts of the mentioned regional countries/powers will ultimately succeed in ensuring the success of Peace Process and commencement of their enhanced economic interaction with/through Afghanistan – the collective geostrategic and geopolitical weightage of Pakistan, Iran, China, Central Asian State, and Russia is far too strong to be overcome by the efforts of India (not bordering Afghanistan) and US (thousands of nautical miles away).
Besides that, the urge to have economic interaction with/through Afghanistan after success of the Peace Process is now been shown by European Union powers too – Germany (EU’s major power) has already taken the lead. Germany’s DW report of 4th of this month (May 2021), has highlighted (italics added): “Politicians and civil society in Germany are giving clear signals that they want to go on supporting development in Afghanistan even after the NATO troops go home”. —-“The German Army plans to bring all of its 1,100 soldiers stationed there back to Germany by mid–August”. —— While mentioning to DW about “plenty of ways in which Germany and other Western countries can support Afghanistan’s development in future”, Urgen Hardt, A foreign policy spokesman for Germany’s CDU/CSU parliamentary group “referred to the current budget of German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). About € 375 million of this are earmarked for Afghanistan. This money is extremely important for every Afghan government”. (15)
Final Evaluative Inference
The pointers discerned from the aspects examined in this article clearly reflect that, despite much efforts put in by the regional countries/powers and Afghan factions including Afghanistan Taliban, there are comparatively lesser chances of a quick success of the Peace Process and return of peace in Afghanistan. Possibilities of many recurring deadlocks/detractions/derailments of the peace negotiations cannot be ruled out. That situation will continue as long as US continues to pressurise Afghanistan Taliban to accept US’ demand to allow some form of US’ politico–military ‘footprint’ in the post–withdrawal political dispensation in the country – something which militates against the key ideology for which Afghanistan Taliban have been/are still fighting for 20 years now.
However, due to the ground realities – of the severe problems of US in continuing its ‘unwinnable’ war, and the weightage of the regional countries/powers keenly trying for the success of Peace Process – there is certainly the hope that ultimately, in not too distant a timeframe, US/NATO will completely withdraw, an actually ‘sovereign’ Afghanistan government free of US’ influence will be established, and peace will return in the country. Once that happens, Afghanistan’s economic recovery will also pickup pace, because of regional and European countries’/powers’ desire to have economic interaction with/ trade through Afghanistan.
(1). Report of US Department of Defense, December 2019, p. 2.
https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jan/23/2002238296/-1/-1/1/1225-REPORT-DECEMBER-2019.PDF (hereinafter cited as Report of US Department of Defense, December 2019, p. 2.)
(6). Report of US Department of Defense, December 2019, p. 2. op.cit.