Post Withdrawal Afghanistan: Reading the Evolving Situation
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Published on 30 July 2021)
(Note: In my search for reports regarding Afghanistan, I have found the Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN) to be much more reliable. It is an independent policy research and analysis organisation, registered as an association in Germany and Afghanistan, funded in large part by Scandinavian countries, and has a core team based in Kabul Afghanistan.) (1)
Important Aspects Examined
Changing Political Dynamics of Afghanistan and Implied Inferences
Following map published in AAN report dated 2nd of this month i.e. July 2021 shows the districts centres of Afghanistan taken and held by Afghanistan Taliban before 01 May 2021 (in light beige colour); taken and held by Afghanistan Taliban during period 01 May to 29 of last month i.e. June 2021 (in dark beige colour); and districts retaken by Afghanistan government (in light blue colour) (2).
The fact that Afghanistan government could retake only few small patches of areas (in light blue colour) clearly shows the marked fighting inability of Afghanistan government’s military forces against Afghanistan Taliban.
And, the next AAN report dated 16th of this month i.e. July 2021 shows further rapid gains made by Afghanistan Taliban. It asserts “The Afghan government has continued to lose district centres to the Taleban. By our reckoning, the insurgents have gained control of almost 200 district centre since 1 May, most of them since mid-June. Added to the ones they already controlled, that puts the insurgents in charge of just over half of Afghanistan districts”. (3)
The point to note is that fall of over 200 districts to Afghanistan Taliban has factually placed Kabul and other government–controlled provincial capitals almost in a state of siege. Obviously, prolongation of that state is most likely to be unsustainable by government forces.
The same (16th July 2021) AAN report has also provided following very revealing chart illustrating the number of Afghanistan districts falling to Afghanistan Taliban each day from 1 to 14 of this month i.e. July 2021.
This chart clearly shows that rapid advance of Afghanistan Taliban was facilitated a great deal when the morale of Afghanistan government’s forces plunged down further when action of final US-NATO withdrawal commenced in earnest.
Another very significant aspect is that besides taking charge of these districts, during this month, Afghanistan Taliban have also captured key border crossings from Afghanistan to China and Tajikistan (US’ Wall Street Journal report of 8 July 2021(4); from Afghanistan to Iran, and Turkmenistan (BBC Report of 10 July 2021 (5); and, from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province (Aljazeera report of 14 July 2021(6).
It is also important to note that, with further passage of time, Afghanistan Taliban’s gains and hold on ground (the districts and border crossing avenues, as also the dry ports) is increasing. Situation as on 13th of this month i.e. July 2021 highlights that fact. That situation has been explicitly shown in following map published in an article of Financial Times updated on 19th of this month i.e. July 2021. (7)
The map also shows the dry ports in Afghanistan and their status as on date
The author of this article is Col Ronnie Rajkumar; an Indian Army Veteran; after retirement has worked with an international consultancy in Afghanistan as the Divisional Security Advisor based in Kabul; and has extensive ground experience of 11 years in Afghanistan and the region (8). His remarks in the beginning of the article about the current situation on ground including main supply routes (MSR) and the condition of Afghanistan government forces (ANDSF, also known as ANSF) in Afghanistan are noteworthy (underlining added for highlighting):-
- The Taliban offensive continues inexorably towards a near-inevitable collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as district after district fall to Taliban control. The ANDSF has lost the cohesion of a fighting force and it is up in the air as to how many troops are actually engaged on ground given the surrenders, desertions and significant combat attrition. The last ditch ‘Plan B’ to form up into a defensive bulwark around population centres and along MSRs is a fast fading possibility as day by day the Taliban continue to out-manoeuvre, out-fight and seize control of the military, demographic and territorial space. To some analysts it is no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and how soon” (9).
These assertions by Col Ronnie Rajkumar clearly show that Ashraf Ghani’s government is unlikely to survive for long.
Economic Impact of Capture of Border Crossings by Afghanistan Taliban
Latest reportMENAFN dated 18th of this month i.e. July 2021 has highlighted this aspect. Following of the assertions brought to fore in this report are worth noting (underlining added for highlighting) (10):-
- Taliban now controls more Afghan border crossings than the government in Kabul, the latest sign the militant outfit is winning a strategic upper hand in the country. In many areas where the Taliban has seized control border trade has come to a halt, a strangulation strategy that will cut Kabul’s revenues and supplies”.
- Taliban has taken control over as many as seven big and small freight transport routes with a combined import–export volume of US$2.9 billion linking Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, according to recent reports.
- Ashraf Ghani’s embattled government still holds strategic border crossings with Pakistan and Iran in Afghan Nangarhar, Paktya, Paktika, Khost and Nimroz provinces. The value of the business from these routes is a little over $2 billion, the reports said.
- For the remaining two border crossings with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, government and Taliban forces are now reportedly engaged in fierce fighting in Jowzjan and Balkh provinces where border trade is worth an estimated $1.7 billion.
- Afghan experts believe the Taliban is strategically focused on choking the Afghan government’s resources used for administration, war, energy and even food.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, by encircling most of the provincial capitals and putting those capitals in almost a state of siege, Afghanistan Taliban have already taken over control of trade and other traffic in and out of such provincial capitals. That is a serious internal economic strangulation of Ashraf Ghani’s embattled government. And, now the addition of this outer economic strangulation of trade routes to and from neighbouring countries is bound to be the unbearable economic devastation of Ashraf Ghani’s government.
The Spoilers of Afghanistan Peace Process
It is obvious that only those countries are the spoilers of Afghanistan peace process whose interests are hurt by US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those countries include India, US, Israel and UK.
Out of these countries, India is the major spoiler of the peace process, because for many years now India has been freely using Afghanistan territory to launch terrorist attacks/activities in Pakistan, with the assistance of the premier intelligence agencies of Afghanistan (NDS), of US (CIA), an of Israel (RAW) – of course with the knowledge of the US–planted Afghanistan government now under Ashraf Ghani.
And, now with US/NATO withdrawing from the country, that US–panted and India–friendly government is not likely to survive. Out of desperation, therefore, India is bent upon disrupting the peace process participated by Afghanistan Taliban. For that purpose, India sent its airforce (IAF) C-17 transport aircrafts to Afghanistan to secretly provide ammunition for Afghanistan government forces and local anti–Taliban militias, for fighting against Afghanistan Taliban. According to reports published on 12 of this month i.e. July 2021 “On July 10 an Indian airforce aircraft C-17 landed at Kandahar airfield at around midnight and unloaded a lethal cargo of 40 tons of bullets of 122mm cannon. Another IAF aircraft C-17 arrived at Kabul airfield in the wee hours of Sunday and brought another cargo of 40 tons of bullets for 122mm cannon. The aircraft on their return transport the staff used for covert operations in Afghanistan to the airbases at Uttar Pardesh, Chandigarh and Jaipur”. (11) Report of this activity was also published / covered by international print media / television channels.
In that context it is also worthy of note that US, India and Ashraf Ghani’s government are also secretly colluding together to sabotage the ongoing peace process by promoting internal fighting in Afghanistan by militarily strengthening Ashraf Ghani’s government forces and their allied anti–Taliban militias and terrorist groups like TTP. For that purpose US’ Secretary of State and Afghanistan’s Army Chief are visiting India, for two and three days respectively, commencing their visits in the last week of this month i.e. July 2021. US Secretary of State will meet Indian PM, External Affairs minister and India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), with “Defence Ties, Afghanistan on US Secretary of State Agenda” – India’s NDTV report of 24th of this month i.e. July 2021 – (12). And, during his scheduled visit, Army Chief of Afghanistan is going to hold discussions with India’s top military brass including India’s Army Chief and India’s NSA to “explore boosting bilateral military ties in the face of the Taliban making sweeping offensive across Afghanistan” – India’s NDTV report of 20th of this month i.e. July 2021 – (13).
The other aspect in this context is that the evolving situation in Afghanistan clearly shows that now Afghanistan Taliban have gained much dominating position strategically, in internal politics, as also in international fora particularly in the regional geopolitics. Even US’ top Afghanistan-veteran General Mark Milley has asserted, “The Taliban appears to have “strategic momentum” in the fight for control of Afghanistan” – CBC report dated 21st of this month) (14 ) . That evolving situation clearly reflects much higher chances that sooner or later Afghanistan Taliban are more likely to succeed in their peace plan efforts to form an inclusive interim government (including other Afghan factions also) in the country; thereby finally getting rid of the US–planted and India–supported Ashraf Ghani government. Keeping in view the ingrained psyche of Afghans, that interim government is bound to be ‘sovereign’ in the true sense, and will focus on enacting and promoting economic investment/trade activities particularly with neighbouring countries to immediately commence work on alleviating the severe economic sufferings of the war–devastated Afghan masses – an aspect for which Pakistan, Iran, China, Central Asian States, and Russia are too willing to cooperate. In that case it is also most likely that the mentioned interim government will allow China’s CPEC (connecting Russia, Central Asia, China, West and South Asia, and Arabian Sea) to include Afghanistan, thereby providing immediate and immense economic uplift to Afghanistan. Very obviously, that almost evident eventuality is ‘sounding the death knell’ for any idea/plans of US, India, and their anti–China allies to retain their politico–economic ‘stranglehold’ on Afghanistan; hence their spoiling efforts to sabotage the Afghanistan Taliban–participated Afghanistan peace plan.
Military Potential of Afghanistan Government Forces (ANSF/ANDSF) and Local anti–Taliban Militias vs. Afghanistan Taliban
As for the Afghanistan government forces, known as ANSF or ANDSF – comprising Afghanistan National Army (ANA), Airforce, Afghan National Police (ANP) and the premier intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) – their comparative capabilities vs. Afghanistan Taliban were explained in detail in the 27th May 2021 publication of these reviews (15); and based upon the assertions in the credible research paper/articles quoted therein, serious inherent weaknesses of ANSF have been highlighted in that review.
The aspect now to note is that during the last about two months further serious weaknesses of ANSF, and their ramifications have come to light. The more visible of those are: (a) morale of ANSF officers and men has become too low, due to the persistent inherent organisational problems including poor leadership, rampant corruption, poor management of personnel and logistics, as also interference of political power–holders in the deployment of ANSF, etc.; (b) incapability of ANSF to effectively deal with Afghanistan Taliban’s operational competence, due to ANSF’s inept training and operational doctrines required to face the much flexible guerilla war techniques of Afghanistan Taliban – resulting in high attrition rate of ANSF; (c) at many places ANSF units have shown lack of will to fight, because ANSF has been organised basically as a mercenary force without any ideological urge to fight. As a result, in many places ANA and ANP surrendered to Afghanistan Taliban without fighting; and when attacked by Afghanistan Taliban, about a thousand officers and men of ANSF fled from north of the country to the neighbouring Tajikistan, a contingent of theirs fled to north Pakistan in first week and another in the last week of this month i.e. July 2021.
As for the local anti–Taliban militias, being re–raised and equipped by the spoilers (India, US and US–panted Ashraf Ghani government), sufficient details are not yet available. However, these militias are not much likely to have any dearth of weapons and ammunition which is already supplied by the mentioned spoilers; but, on the other hand these militias will obviously lack the effectiveness of a disciplined and operationally cohesive force, which requires prolonged training and grooming.
In essence, therefore, though the ANSF and allied local militias/terrorist groups combination does not possess the capability to defeat or even ‘uproot’ Afghanistan Taliban, yet the possible capability of this combination should not be ruled out of initiating infighting in the country to hinder the application of Afghanistan Taliban participated Afghanistan peace plan – even if only for some months.
Identified Plan and Strategy of Afghanistan Taliban
It has become very obvious by now that leadership of Afghanistan Taliban’s mindset has undergone quite some change towards pragmatism in political decision–making, although without sacrificing their principled ideological stances.
That aspect was amply clarified by Afghanistan Taliban’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid in an interview with Foreign Policy last month i.e. June 2021. In that he asserted, “Post-war Afghanistan, in the eyes of the Taliban, will be a law-abiding country, a member of the community of nations, open for business, and at peace with itself, its neighbors, and the rest of the world”. (16)
In that context they have also very wisely planned to accept formation of an inclusive (of various Afghan factions) interim government in the country based upon Islamic injunctions; and not to militarily occupy Kabul or certain provincial capitals for compelling Ashraf Ghani government to honour US’ commitment in Doha agreement for the formation of such interim government. Their strategy rather appears to continue with surrounding Kabul and provincial capitals, thereby applying severe economic squeezing of Ashraf Ghani government, thus compelling him to accept formation of that government.
Identified Role of Regional Countries/Powers and European Union Powers
By now it is fully evident that all the countries/powers bordering Afghanistan – Pakistan, Iran, China, Central Asian States, and Russia – are already working as an informal geopolitical alliance to assist in the success and implementation of Afghanistan Taliban participated peace plan in Afghanistan, and to engage the next inclusive government formed under that plan to enact and promote mutual economic investment/trade activities, and stability and security in Afghanistan and the region.
In that context while stances – relating to Afghanistan peace process and supportive inclination towards Afghanistan Taliban-participated peace plan – of Pakistan, Iran, China, and Central Asian States are already well–known, a clearer understanding of Russia’s stance has been provided by Asfandyar Mir, Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He has clarified that Russia “was the first to publically engage with the Taliban. It hosted a 2018 delegation to spur peace effort, the start of a series of meetings since, despite the fact it considers the Taliban a banned terrorist organisation”. “Russia doesn’t want US–backed regimes in its backyard”. Instead, Putin is putting faith in a new relationship with the Taliban that he hopes will contain the threat from isis and al-Qaeda”. “Zamir Kabulov, his special representative on Afghanistan, recently described the Talian advance as a security boost for Russia because it would wipe out more dangerous jihadist groups. “The fact that Taliban are taking control —– has a positive aspect to it. Why? Because most of these (extremist) groups are not focused on domestic matter, but on Central Asia, Pakistan or Iran,” he said last week”. – UK’s Financial Times report (17).
It is also worth noting that even many of the European Union (EU) countries are now vying to establish economic investment/trade relations with the upcoming government in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. In that context lead role has already been taken by the major EU power Germany. Germany’s politicians and society have shown eagerness to have such economic relations with the post-withdrawal Afghanistan; and Jürgen Hardt, Germany’s CDU/CSU parliamentary group’s foreign policy spokesman mentioned that in the current budget of Germany’s Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development has about €375 million earmarked for Afghanistan – Germany’s DW report. (18)
From the foregoing data and credible research papers/reports there appears higher chances that US, India and their anti–China allies like Israel are most likely to employ the ANSF and allied anti–Taliban local militias/terrorist groups like TTP combination to create infighting and consequent chaos in the country, to derail the Afghanistan Taliban–participated peace process, so that Afghanistan Taliban are compelled to accept the lead role of US–pliant Ashraf Ghani government faction or any other such faction in the interim government. However, it is also evident that, keeping in view the aforementioned prevailing ground realities as also the strong support of the Afghanistan Taliban–participated peace plan by regional countries and regional world powers (China and Russia), the US/India/Allies’ mentioned disrupting actions are least likely to continue beyond some months. In all probability, therefore, an Afghanistan Taliban–led interim government inclusive of other Afghan factions will ultimately be formed to lead the country to the much needed peace, stability and economic alleviation of Afghan masses.
(2). AAN Report of 2nd July 2021
https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/a-quarter-of-afghanistans-districts-fall-to-the-taleban-amid-calls-for-a-second-resistance/ (Hereinafter cites as AAN report of 2nd July 2-21)
(3).AAN Report of 16 July 2021
(4). Wall Street Journal Report of 8 July 2021 https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghanistans-taliban-now-on-chinas-border-seek-to-reassure-beijing-11625750130
(5). BBC Report of 10 July 2021
(6). Aljazeera Report of 14 July 2021