Afghanistan after American withdrawal: Part 1 — Internal factors shaping developments

Afghan National Security Forces keep watch outside of a military compound after a car bomb blast on the outskirts of Ghazni city, Afghanistan November 29, 2020. REUTERS/Mustafa Andaleb
Editor's note:

The research reported here was funded in part by the Minerva Research Initiative (OUSD(R&E)) and the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory via grant #W911-NF-17-1-0569 to George Mason University. Any errors and opinions are not those of the Department of Defense and are attributable solely to the authors.

What are the possible developments in Afghanistan over the next three to five years after the withdrawal of U.S. forces? In this three-part blog series, I discuss possible scenarios, some of the factors that influence the likelihood of each scenario, and how external actors can shape developments. In this first piece, I focus on the internal factors shaping Afghanistan after American withdrawal — specifically, the cohesion and capacity of Afghan security forces, the Taliban’s military tactics and cohesiveness, and rifts within the Afghan political elite.

In the second piece, I discuss the scenarios in detail. In the third piece, I analyze the capacity of external actors to shape dynamics within Afghanistan.

Four scenarios (in brief)

At least four broad scenarios for Afghanistan in the next three to five years are conceivable. They include:

  • a substantial preservation of the existing political dispensation;
  • a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and key Afghan powerbrokers without substantially greater bloodshed;
  • rapid Taliban gains on the battlefield and in political dealmaking; and
  • a protracted and fragmented civil war.

The latter, bleaker scenarios are far more likely. The first — the preservation of the existing political order — including competitive elections and constitutional commitment to human, minority, and women’s rights, i.e., the preservation of the existing Afghan constitution — is extremely unlikely. The Taliban is simply too militarily strong and adroit in political bargaining for such an outcome. It wants profound social and political changes. The uncertainties are the extent of the losses to be borne by the current order and the amount of bloodshed that takes place in the process.

These stylized scenarios are not mutually exclusive, and a combination of them could develop both at the national level and in particular regions of Afghanistan.

What can be expected as these potential futures unfold is at least a year of significant intensification of fighting, as the Taliban is likely to mount a strong offensive from late summer 2021 through at least 2022. Only if the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) manage to retain enough personnel and élan and avoid splintering during that period (and ideally bloody the Taliban’s nose) are serious intra-Afghan negotiations likely to begin.

Indeed, which scenario materializes will critically depend on the capacity of several sets of actors to keep themselves from splintering.

Four key internal factors influencing Afghanistan’s future

The first and crucial factor is whether ANDSF manage to not give up and break apart under likely strong Taliban military pressure in late summer 2021, when all U.S. and NATO forces and most, if not all, military contractors will be out of Afghanistan. (Whether some can stay under new arrangements directly with the Afghan government is being explored.)

Although the ANDSF registered some improvements over the past decade, all the debilitating problems known a decade ago remain today. These include poor logistics, resupply, and maintenance, including of the Afghan Air Force. The ANDSF are undermined not merely by a lack of capacity but also by pervasive corruption and factionalization around particular commanders and patrons; poor unit leadership; struggles to hold territories; a lack of special enablers such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and medical evacuation; a basic lack of readiness and willingness to launch offensive actions against the Taliban; and poor retention of personnel and very high casualty levels. All of these deficiencies combine to eviscerate cohesion. With the exception of the badly overused Afghan Special Security Forces, the conventional forces and the police have rarely taken the fight to the Taliban. Under the militants’ heavy pressure, many units have been striking accommodation deals with the Taliban. This trend may accelerate, especially if the Taliban manages to maintain enough discipline to avoid reprisals against its units that make such deals.

U.S. funding helps to keep the ANDSF from imploding. This is not in jeopardy this year or next, and should be maintained in the future. There is bipartisan support for keeping the money flowing. More questionable is whether the ANDSF adjusts, including psychologically, to no longer having the on-the-ground support of U.S. forces. Remote advising options are being considered in the United States.

The type of military pressure the Taliban exert is a second crucial factor. The Taliban has repeatedly taken over provincial capitals and currently encircles several of them and can rapidly put pressure on several more. Moreover, Kabul’s control of some provincial and district capitals is often only in name, with officials hunkered down in compounds, with their access in and out of town and life on the street controlled by the Taliban. It was only the U.S. Air Force that kept the Taliban from holding on to provincial capitals it previously managed to capture, such as Kunduz and Ghazni. The big question is whether the Taliban can pounce on and conquer several provincial capitals at the same time — if so, ANDSF will struggle dramatically and disintegration pressures will grow.

Of course, the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces may also create some factionalization pressures within the Taliban. The insurgency’s principal raison d’être has been to drive the foreign soldiers out. With that accomplished, some Taliban fighters may prefer to stop fighting. A fear of such disengagement from the battlefield is one factor keeping the Taliban from agreeing to cease-fires longer than a few days. However, the Taliban was able to maintain adequate control during the 1990s and since, despite two decades of being pounded by the U.S. military.

Perhaps the more uncertain element regarding the Taliban’s internal cohesion is the power relationship between the Taliban’s military field commanders and the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras.

Paradoxically, two decades of U.S. high-value-targeting efforts may have been counterproductive. With the hope that decapitation would weaken and fracture the Taliban, U.S. and NATO targeting eliminated many older commanders. Many of the current Taliban military commanders do not have the visceral memories of the 1990s civil war, are plugged into the global jihadi movement, have created robust local funding mechanisms (collecting taxes on everything), and are power-hungry. They are unlikely to accept tokens of power. Equally unclear is how much the commanders will be willing to compromise on social issues at the national level, with substantial variation of how rigidly Taliban leaders rule locally in response to community pushback. What the U.S. high-value targeting should instead have been based on was the potential willingness of key Taliban to compromise in negotiations, with the more power-hungry commanders targeted and the more business and bargaining-inclined ones spared. The 2016 killing of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour is a prime example of wrong targeting priorities.

The uncertainties of preferences and power dynamics between the Taliban leadership and military commanders is one reason why the Taliban negotiators have avoided specificity about issues such as changes to the Afghan constitution and the rights of women and minorities. Putting any cards on the table requires delicate and complex bargaining within the Taliban, which its leadership wants to put off as long as possible.

Still, the Taliban’s top military commanders are unlikely to split off at any scale that would threaten the group for some time — not until actual national power arrangements are struck. Then, conceivably, some unsatisfied commanders could throw in their lot with the Islamic State in Khorasan group or, more likely, act independently.

The fourth critical factor is the Afghan political elite. The question is not whether it will factionalize — it is already highly divided — but whether, at the last minute, with the survival of existing political order at stake, it can come together.

For the past two decades, many Afghan politicians and powerbrokers have pursued narrow parochial and material interests, not shy to generate political roadblocks and crises and violent conflict when it suited them. Their constant politicking undermined governance and their predatory, rapacious, and capricious rule accounts to a significant extent for the strength of the Taliban today.

In 2021, the divisions within and politicking of the Afghan elite only intensified as various powerbrokers jockeyed for key positions in an interim government the United States had promoted through the ill-fated Istanbul process.

Since mid-May key powerbrokers in Afghanistan have been attempting to come together with President Ashraf Ghani in a national unity council that would demonstrate unity to the Taliban. Feverish negotiations have been underway, but, as has been typical, have stalled due to power competition among the politicians.

However, even if it is formed, the council will hardly be the last word about political unity vis-à-vis the Taliban. For the past two years, the Taliban has been intensely negotiating with powerbrokers not just in its southern Pashtun strongholds, but also with Tajiks and other minority politicians in the north. Those negotiations have been going on far longer than the unity council negotiations.

If the Taliban manages to lure a sufficient number of the powerbrokers away with promises of power in the government it wants to form, particularly if provincial capitals start falling to its fighters, the scales will at least temporarily tip to the third scenario, as I detail in the second piece in this series.