Alarm is growing at the prospect of the Taliban unseating the Kabul government, but that outcome is just one of three scenarios for Afghanistan’s future amid mounting military uncertainty and an unfolding human tragedy.
There is no question that momentum is with the Taliban, which have taken more territory in Afghanistan in the past two months than they did in the past 20 years. The insurgents now are estimated to control two-thirds of the country as foreign forces pull out after a lengthy engagement that was one of the costliest and most ambitious foreign operations ever, with over $800 billion spent by Washington alone — more than the cost of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
Yet, even as the Taliban seek to deliver a “knockout blow” to President Ashraf Ghani’s government, protracted civil war is still the scenario that many seasoned pundits, including former US commander David Petraeus and former UK spy chief Alex Younger, see as most likely. Part of the reason is the remaining balance of security personnel in the nation.
On Tuesday, the White House reasserted that Afghan national defense forces have the equipment, numbers and training to fight back and that they will be supported by limited US air strikes. In addition, Ghani is also doubling down on calls for regional militias to defend Afghanistan’s “democratic fabric.”
Many of these so-called warlords, forged in the mujahideen battles of the 1990s with the Soviet Union, have been at loggerheads with Kabul for years and the fact that the president is now appealing to them so forcefully underlines the dire straits he is now in.
So much so, in fact, that an increasing number of foreign politicians are now openly speculating about the implications of a new Taliban government. Even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that Afghanistan would become a “pariah state” if the Taliban take control by force.
The Taliban strategy to deliver a military knockout blow to the Afghan government now appears to be to take the north of the country.
Other governments, including China, are also increasingly engaging with the Taliban leadership. The latter assured Beijing recently that a Taliban-led Afghanistan will not become a base for plotting against another country amid Chinese fears of a staging ground for Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.
The Taliban strategy to deliver a military knockout blow to Ghani’s government now appears to be to take the north of the country, as well as the main border crossings in the north, west and south, and then close in on Kabul. Puli-Khumri, capital of the northern province of Baghlan, fell to the insurgents on Tuesday, the seventh regional capital to come under the control of the Taliban in about a week.
The insurgents’ advances mean it may be weeks until it is clearer whether civil war or insurgent victory comes to pass, but one thing is certain already. Amid the current Afghan mayhem, the country’s fragile progress over the past two decades has gone into reverse, with a daunting array of economic, security and political challenges.
So much so, in fact, that a third scenario of political compromise between Ghani’s government and the Taliban is now only a dwindling possibility — in the absence of more foreign forces to help bring it about. Last year’s reconciliation talks between Kabul and the insurgents had raised hopes of a breakthrough involving withdrawal of foreign forces and prisoner releases in exchange for security guarantees by the militants.
Yet, while the Biden administration highlighted again on Tuesday the importance of further negotiations, the elusive goal of a sustained peace seems further away than ever given the recent Taliban battlefield advances. As long as the insurgent forces are on the offensive, there is little incentive for compromise.
The bleakness of the security and political situation is underlined by the fact that India this week became the latest country to advise its citizens to leave Afghanistan. Other nations, including the US and UK, have already issued warnings to this effect.
On the economic front, the news is not good either. Reconstruction has been slow and unemployment remains very high. Ghulam Bahauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, warned this week of a mounting human tragedy, with 60,000 families displaced in the past two months alone, most seeking refuge in Kabul or foreign countries.
It is also clear that, since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the economy has been insufficiently diversified from drug exports, such as opium and heroin, despite the fact that the country has abundant natural resources — gas, minerals and oil — with an estimated value of about $3 trillion. A related problem is corruption, with Transparency International ranking Afghanistan as one of the most corrupt states in the world.
With the growing prospect of intensified instability, the country is set to go backward, possibly rapidly. This will taint the legacy of post-9/11 foreign intervention in Afghanistan further as, tragically, the fragile gains of the past two decades continue to unravel.
• Andrew Hammond