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Withdrawing from Afghanistan – strategy without hope?

October 25, 2019

Summary:

Carter Malkasian has written an interesting and timely article for Foreign Affairs this month.  He is a very well-known and highly experienced Afghanistan expert, with much time in the field at crucial points of the international community’s engagement, particularly in Helmand province.  He addresses the question of what a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan could look like, with the sub-heading “Learning to Live With Taliban Rule”, being a large clue.  His assessment is bleak and highly US-centric, but with an American administration in the role of passively hoping for the best.  While this is a perhaps understandable perspective for an America wearied of wars that never seem to conclude, he appears willing to risk Afghanistan being thrown to the wolves of unpredictable civil war, international terrorist groups and meddling neighbours with little or no guarantees of a peaceful outcome for the Afghan people.  Twenty years of flawed but demonstrable social, political and economic progress are to be unravelled.

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Malkasian argues that a full US military withdrawal would lead inevitably to Taliban military gains, likely including Taliban attacks on provincial capitals and key cities.  He asserts, absolutely plausibly, that without US military support, the Taliban could control half of the country.  Many would argue that they are already doing this.  The survivability of Kabul is addressed – he suggests that the fall of Kabul is possible and raises the historical model of Afghans pragmatically changing sides in order to survive: “Once tribal leaders, police, soldiers, and farmers sense which way the wind is blowing, the whole edifice of the Afghan state could collapse”.  This references back to the rapid advances of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and the reversal of this process in 2001-2002 with the arrival of the US-led military coalition.  He offers it as likely that warlords would emerge to fight the Taliban – perhaps alongside the Afghan National Army, or perhaps in place of it.  Neighbouring countries would once again back their favoured ethnic/political groups with arms and money.  Al Qaeda, Islamic State and others would potentially thrive in mountains and valleys no longer monitored by US drones.  This is back to a civil war, but, if it is possible, of a kind even worse than the 1990s.

In attempting to demonstrate the positive from the US point of view, Malkasian suggests Kabul might not fall and that, after an inevitable surge of violence for a year or so, those in Taliban-dominated areas could see a reduction in fighting as the Taliban assert control.  They would learn to accept the loss of freedoms (human rights, women’s rights, education, voting, free press) they currently have: “Afghans would be oppressed and deprived but alive”.  The Taliban will not attack the Continental US.  It is hard to disagree with this latter point.  With regard to the potential threat from Al Qaeda and Islamic State, he argues that the Continental US is now much more able to resist and deter 9/11-type attacks.  This is probably accurate, but I wonder, a generation later, whether it is safe to assume 9/11 attacks are still the “go to” solution for international terrorism?

For a Trump administration, rapid withdrawal with little regard for the medium and long-term consequences for Afghanistan and the region, surely looks attractive.  But Malkasian’s case as it stands, while understandable in the “America First” era (which has about fifteen months to run, and counting), appears to readily accept a bloody civil war (with absolutely no guarantees as to the outcome) and the destruction of nearly twenty years of progress and hope.  This is a massive gamble.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder why the Americans are talking with the Taliban?  The Taliban are not popular.  No one is out on the streets demonstrating for them.  They cannot win at any ballot box.  Their intentions, post-US withdrawal, are deliberately (and worryingly) shrouded.  Many believe that the Taliban are bent on removing or collapsing the current government and administration by force as soon as the Americans have departed this newly-levelled playing field.   They represent a small minority of suspect interests who have shown little interest in addressing issues of governance, society, popular consent and economics.  Their only realistic way to remain relevant is to partition Afghanistan’s geographic, national, political and military resources with like-minded, unrepresentative grey and white beards, such as warlords and fellow travellers (think Hekmatyar), without pesky “will of the people” issues to contend with.

What would happen if the US took the time instead to arrange a managed withdrawal deal with the Afghan government rather than the Taliban, alongside multi-decade strategic financial, economic and other support commitments from the US and the international community?  That the US forces should ultimately withdraw is beyond dispute.  Such a withdrawal (numbers of troops and timings) could largely mirror – if not outright copy – the agreements drafted between the US and the Taliban.  But this plan would no longer involve the Taliban.  The Taliban should be directed to the Afghan government if they want to talk to anyone.  Some early and highly publicised initial US troop withdrawals could set the tone for intra-Afghan dialogue.  A US military withdrawal on Afghan government terms would be a much more stable affair, giving reassurance to the population and remove a key (perhaps the key) platform of Taliban grievances.  Perhaps it becomes harder for the Taliban to motivate and recruit once this bedrock issue has disappeared?

Mr Malkasian points to the 2014-2016 period as a “cautionary tale”.  But, from a peak of around 140,000 soldiers to around 12,000, this was a massive withdrawal of international military forces that actually worked, despite many predictions then of collapse and civil war.  The Afghan security forces, although heavily bloodied, are still in the field and capable of taking the fight to the enemy, even half a decade on.

I am not quite sure how well the Najibullah regime analogy works, but here goes.  That regime held together for three years, from 1989 – 1992 – even inflicting large military defeats on guerrilla fighters unskilled at larger-scale conventional operations and over-confident of victory.  It was not until the Soviet Union itself collapsed and the support it was providing to the regime dried up did the Najibullah’s government fragment.   If the ANA bills are footed from a distance, including weapons, training and equipment, perhaps this could stabilise and support them)

Ultimately I am pessimistic.  I believe a hasty US-negotiated withdrawal deal with the Taliban, in the absence of a ceasefire and a viable agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, is more likely to lead to civil war than anything else.  But maybe there are other options and approaches to consider?

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