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Afghanistan: Prospects for 2021

January 14, 2021

Summary: Progress with talks will be limited, the fighting will continue.

I have encountered – and, hands up, often used – more or less every analytical cliché in relation to Afghanistan over two decades of study.  Progress has been made but challenges remain.  Afghanistan is not Switzerland.  This is likely to be a critical yearThe Taliban is not a monolith.  There is a real risk of civil war.  The country is at a tipping point.  Actually, to be fair, I don’t think I have ever used the “tipping point” expression: it was well worn-out, even fifteen years ago.  Oops, apparently I have done.  I dimly recall The Economist writing some years back something along the lines of how the metaphors we choose can distort how we frame a problem, impairing analysis and solutions.  I suspect the same applies to cliche.  I am aware of the analytical risks and agonize every time I mention civil war. 

But it is necessary to return to the big box of clichés at least once a year.  It is difficult to be optimistic about the coming year.  The Taliban remain militarily strong and confidently await the total withdrawal of US armed forces from the country, currently scheduled for 1 May 2021.  As such, they are likely to draw out the Doha talks – there is little beyond discussion over protocols and format at present – until this happens.  They have not suffered any political or military consequences from their positioning.  The Afghan government is struggling to assert itself on the battlefield and, politically, remains fragmented, corrupt and dependent upon the funding and support of the international community. 

America has been an unreliable and unpredictable partner of the Afghan government since Donald Trump became president.  The US is now greatly distracted by its own domestic turmoil, created as Trump leaves office, kicking and screaming.  Some measure of post-Trump coherence in US policy towards Afghanistan is likely to return in 2021.  But the US military disengagement from Afghanistan is still likely under a Biden administration. Joe Biden has in the past been known to favour retaining a small US Counter Terrorist capability in Afghanistan.  However, to the Taliban this would constitute a breach of the February 2020 Doha agreement and would likely trigger an increase in violence.  The options facing the Biden administration seem to fall into two main categories: “plans-based” – stick to the withdrawal agreement and pull out by May, or “conditions-based” – retain/enhance a US military force in-country as leverage until the Taliban come good and reduce the levels of violence.  Barnett Rubin seems to favour a bit of both: a six month extension to compensate for the wasted six months before the Taliban and the Afghan government finally began talking last September, before the US then finally pulls out.  There is a very helpful tweet linked here from Asfandyar Mir, summarising the range of opinions, options and debate on the US way ahead in Afghanistan.

Have the Taliban changed?

“The Taliban have not changed,” said Abdul Hafiz Mansour, a member of the government negotiating team. “They are eager for power, but they have no plans or policies, no ability to run a country. They are a fighting army, not a governing group. They know how to destroy but not to build.”

I still think this is about right.  The Taliban remain deliberately hazy about how they would approach government and how/if they envisage working as a political entity inside Afghanistan.  How might their district by district “war economy” approach to rule work on the national and international stage?  Do they integrate?  Do they insist upon large shares in government, perhaps particular ministries?  Does the Afghan government bankrupt itself further by reintegrating tens of thousands of Taliban fighters into the armed forces or paying pensions to Taliban commanders?  Should there be an  “interim government”?  What would an “interim government” even mean, bearing in mind there are many opportunistic powerbrokers (Hekmatyar for one) who would be more than happy to see an overturning of the current political order if it meant their own personal advancement, even if it meant improper and cynical trade-offs with the Taliban? 

The Taliban’s confidence and victories on the battlefield is inversely proportional to their willingness to compromise on matters of the constitution, governance, society, economy and human/women’s rights.  Across large areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban are increasing their efforts to dominate and interdict major routes.  Hundreds of IEDs are planted, some roads are being torn up and checkpoints are proliferating.  Commercial traffic on the roads are being taxed by armed Taliban gunmen.  The Taliban are reportedly able to spend much more time stopping, questioning and detaining travellers now they are no longer subject to intensive air strikes and US military intervention.  It is superficially positive that the Taliban are not conducting as many mass casualty terror incidents as before (this is left to Islamic State).  But a new tactic is that of deniable targeted assassination: journalists, military and political officials, civil activists and others are being killed.  In so doing, stability is further undermined and the Taliban are slowly removing people that might pose resistance to a Taliban regime in the future.  Civil society is being corroded.

2021 will see little progress in talks and such talks as there are will reveal how differently the Taliban and the Afghan government understand and envisage “integration”.  The battlefield – rural and urban – will remain a bloody backdrop.  This still feels like a very slow slide towards civil war.  I hope to be proved wrong.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2021 12:23 pm

    So sad to read this. If there were to be civil war, who would be the combatants, beside the Taliban? Every warlord for himself and his tribe/group?

    • January 14, 2021 12:36 pm

      Hi Ron – I could quite easily see a situation where parts of the government crumble into factions (lead by warlords, or powerbrokers or key political/religious figures, whatever you want to call them) and the big shiny army that the US has paid for gets divided up…

      • January 14, 2021 12:40 pm

        …and what could be the prize imagined by each faction for itself if it/they could (hypothetically) crush all opposition?

      • January 14, 2021 1:08 pm

        I don’t think strategic vision and planning has ever flourished much beyond “carve out a chunk for myself because I should be seen as a very important person”… At the height of the 90s civil war, Dostum in the north had his own airline and printing press for his own currency…

      • January 14, 2021 2:43 pm

        Maybe split, like Sudan and South Sudan?

      • January 14, 2021 1:10 pm

        We should also be aware of the wider risks – once the factions start fighting again, neighbouring countries will start sponsoring their favoured group with money, weapons and diplomatic recognition- Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, etc

      • January 14, 2021 2:42 pm

        no ‘good’ end in sight … sigh

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