The tragedy of the US Afghan strategy is that it has proved to be a gift that keeps on giving the Taliban concessions while delegitimising the Afghan state, government, military and people
The Afghan government is fighting for survival as external and internal actors exploit its weaknesses in preparation for a US exit. The latest US initiatives to bring “a responsible end” to the Afghan war will likely have the opposite effect, pushing the Afghan government closer to a knife’s edge. In a letter leaked on 7 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a blunt message that urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to agree to a process that would essentially lead to Ghani’s removal from power, dissolve his government, end the Afghan republic, scrap the constitution, and establish a new “inclusive” administration that would include the Taliban. By contrast, no such existential terms seem to have been delivered to the Taliban, who increasingly appear as a government in waiting despite what is assessed to be a highly integrated relationship with al-Qaeda and ongoing violence.
Unsurprisingly, Ghani has refused to step aside and insisted that any new government emerge through elections. US President Joe Biden has not yet stated whether he will order the withdrawal of all American forces by 1 May per the US-Taliban Doha agreement signed under the Trump administration that would also see the exit of allied forces. Speaking in a recent interview, Biden noted that meeting the troop withdrawal deadline would be “tough” and added that the Doha agreement was “not a very solidly negotiated deal”. In his most recent comments Biden said “just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out”. The Taliban have warned of consequences if this date is breached.
Biden said it was not his intention to stay in Afghanistan “for a long time” and “can’t picture” US troops being there next year:
But the question is: How and in what circumstances do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it’s not being able to be worked out to begin with? How is that done?
The US approach that calls for an interim administration by dissolving the Afghan government will not bring peace, but tear down any hope of it. The collapse of the post-communist government of Burhanuddin Rabbani from 1992 to 1996 should caution against initiating a political process that attempts to stitch together an interim government. The reasons that led to the collapse of the Rabbani government remain in place, and five elements stand out, which almost certainly guarantee a tragic repeat.
First, the Afghan political elite is severely divided. The twin presidential swearing-in ceremonies in March 2020, in which Ghani and his former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah claimed to have won the presidency, should put a permanent brake on the idea of elite unity. After failing to convince Ghani and Abdullah to form an “an inclusive government”, then–US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a US$1 billion cut in US aid to Afghanistan and threatened to cut another billion in 2021.
Pompeo’s efforts showed the limited extent to which hard currency can be used to broker political solutions. The coming US exit makes it all the more challenging for money to act as political glue, other than providing temporary relief – which can easily fall apart when the money stops flowing.
Thus, it would be reckless to assume that an interim administration representing an array of political elites could peacefully negotiate compromises that would hold the state intact, given that their overriding priority is the preservation of their individual political interests, as opposed to purely financial incentives
Second, there is a persistence of political spoilers. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord and head of the Hezb-i Islami political faction, fits the definition of a “total spoiler” – one who pursues total power and whose objectives are not subject to change. Between 1992 and 1995, Hekmatyar ordered the shelling of Kabul, which killed thousands of civilians. This act earned him the nickname the “Butcher of Kabul” and demonstrated that he would seize by force what he could not gain through negotiations.
Hardly the only spoiler – or butcher – on the Afghan political landscape, Hekmatyar remains an advocate for an interim government that would work to his advantage at the expense of the national interest. It would be a grave miscalculation to assume that an interim government would have the leverage to punish or deny such spoilers seeking power at all costs, even if it led to mass fatalities or state collapse – reminiscent of Hekmatyar and other commanders in the 1990s.
Third, there is a near-total absence of political consensus, a necessary precondition to develop a workable system to resolve differences in an interim political administration. Washington’s leaked eight-page draft proposal that US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been circulating seeks to replace the current government with temporary leaders, establish three “co-equal” branches of government, broker a ceasefire, and hold elections after the formation of an interim government. The co-equal branches would comprise an executive, a national representative body or shura, and a judiciary with a supreme court and lower courts. In addition, a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence and a commission to prepare a new constitution would also be set up.
The trouble with dispatching the current branches of government and creating new coequal branches, all un-elected, is that none could claim to be representative of the people. Moreover, the contest between these coequal branches for primacy is highly likely to lead to further conflict.
Fourth, the expectation that an interim government would move promptly to hold free and fair national elections is grossly misplaced. In spite of the last two decades of effort to build democratic institutions in Afghanistan, the credibility of elections has suffered as the electoral process has disenfranchised voters, failed to deliver clear winners and remained deeply contested as a result of industrial-scale fraud.
The idea that elections could be used to sideline the Taliban should they behave repressively is sheer fantasy. Similarly, it is impossible to imagine Taliban candidates engaging in debates and running for seats as politicians in the upper and lower house or president. Even the mechanics of the elections that I observed in the 2018 parliamentary polls and the 2019 presidential elections presented significant roadblocks to conducting elections. It is risible to think that Taliban candidates would agree, for example, to having their biometric scans and photographs taken for an electoral process that the insurgents have never accepted as an avenue to political legitimacy and have violently attacked at every opportunity.
It is equally risky to consider that Afghanistan’s electoral body has acquired the degree of public confidence and neutrality to run elections in a credible fashion. Even if this were the case, the threat or use of force to eliminate or intimidate electoral officials would render the electoral process a façade and the results largely meaningless. A flawed election would ripen the conditions for large-scale violence with virtually no means of termination.
Finally, the shifting alliances under the 1992–96 Rabbani government among political elites reinforced the absence of the state, which was most notably felt in the fragmentation of the Afghan Army. Rabbani’s government was weak and did not command a monopoly of violence, which meant that there was no guarantee that his orders would be followed or implemented. Without the guarantee that a state has the means to provide security, the political arena would be fair game and encourage actors to shift alliances in pursuit of their goals through violence.
At present, Ghani commands the Afghan security forces, who are engaged in intensive operations to prevent the Taliban from gaining more ground and to stave off the insurgents from accruing greater military and political gains. By jettisoning the current administration, Washington risks precipitating the fragmentation of the Afghan security forces who have thus far prevented a highly contested environment from manifesting in which competing political leaders, parties and militias would collide and clash for political power and territories. The Taliban have much to gain from a failure of the proposed interim administration and would likely win the ensuing political and military contest –as they did after Rabbani’s government tore itself apart.
Washington’s interests are better protected by the Afghan government than by a terrorist organisation. The unravelling of the Iraqi government in the face of the Islamic State should serve as a reminder of the risks of state collapse and would likely to happen if American forces were to withdraw from Afghanistan and dissolve the current government.
Despite a convergence of American and Afghan interests, especially on counterterrorism, democracy, human rights and equality, the US approach has failed to recognise the Taliban for the malign actor they are, and instead perceives them for what they wish them to be: an actor who can compromise for the good of the Afghan people. However, the Taliban want total power, not shared power. They are committed to overthrowing the Afghan government and establishing a “pure Islamic government”.
Opposing the Taliban has cost countless lives for over a quarter of a century. The Taliban’s series of assassinations, all unclaimed, targeting civilians, journalists, judges, government officials and security personnel reflects the group’s longstanding malign character which aims to silence dissenting voices, sow discord and amplify fear. There is no space to have a different view, and many – including Rabbani himself – have been killed believing they could broker peace with the Taliban. At the time of his assassination in September 2011, Rabbani headed the Afghan High Peace Council, which never recovered from this event and was later disbanded by Ghani in 2019.
Afghans have many reasons to fear the prospect of a new interim administration. Central among these are the fears that a new interim administration would jettison human rights, bring the country closer to civil war, elevate and return strongmen to power, diminish development gains and cement the Taliban’s dominance and Pakistan’s in the country’s political future. An interim administration would also deny Afghans the opportunity to remove unelected political leaders via elections and would swell political divisions, including along ethno-political and sectarian lines.
None of this bodes well for the long-term stability of Afghanistan.
The tragedy of the US Afghan strategy is that it has proved to be a gift that keeps on giving the Taliban concessions while delegitimising the Afghan state, government, military and people. Another tragedy is that the international consensus that existed at the Bonn Conference in 2001, which established the process for rebuilding the Afghan state, has turned into a consensus for seeking to undo the Afghan government in terms that are significantly favourable for the Taliban.
There appears to be no conditionality on the Taliban to comply with the Doha deal, whereas the insurgents have repeatedly stressed the terms of the deal to secure the withdrawal of all foreign forces. Instead of conceding more ground to the Taliban, what is urgently needed is a bold approach that would sustain an international partnership with the Afghan government and recognise that the gains made are worth preserving. It would also designate the Taliban a foreign terrorist organisation (which they currently are not despite persistent questions) and tighten the screws on Pakistan to end its strategic support for the insurgents or risk being treated as enabling a terrorist group.
These tools and more are still available to Washington, which it utilises against much stronger strategic adversaries than the Taliban, including, China, North Korea and Russia.
But as Washington looks to end its military involvement in Afghanistan, the groundwork it is laying all but guarantees a return to the rule of the Taliban – but not before triggering state collapse, lighting the fuse of a multidimensional civil war and burying democracy.