February 10, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: AfghanistanTalibanWarTerrorismPeace Talks
How the Taliban Would Take Over Afghanistan
Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan will almost certainly undermine any possibility of a peace settlement.
by Seth G. Jones
The seemingly endless war in Afghanistan—which is heading toward its eighteenth year since the overthrow of the Taliban regime—has led to a renewed push for an American military withdrawal. The Trump administration is considering withdrawing some or all U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Several American politicians support a drawdown. “I think we should come home,” declared U.S. Senator Rand Paul. “I don’t think we have enough money to be paying to build and rebuild and build and rebuild Afghanistan … Let’s rebuild America.”
Others have argued that Vietnam turned out fine in the end following the U.S. withdrawal in 1975. “While the Vietnam War was a near-term strategic defeat, in retrospect, it may yet prove to have been a geo-strategic win,” another article in Small Wars Journal concluded. “The same may prove true for Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal. Like a bad business investment, there are times when you must accept one’s losses and move on.”
The Trump administration is currently focused on both trying to reach a peace deal with the Taliban and continuing military operations. U.S. officials have concluded that the Taliban is unlikely to be defeated on the battlefield, and there is limited U.S. domestic support for the war. But it is unclear whether negotiations will succeed in ending the war, even if an initial deal is reached with the Taliban. After all, only a quarter of insurgencies end with a settlement, while nearly three-quarters end on the battlefield. Since World War II, insurgent groups have successfully overthrown a government or gained independence in 35 percent of insurgencies, and governments defeated insurgents on the battlefield in 36 percent of insurgencies. In addition, there are significant challenges with reaching a deal that sticks in Afghanistan: not only does it require negotiating an agreement acceptable to the Afghan government, the Taliban, Pakistan and the United States—a tall order—but all sides have to sell it to their constituencies.
At the international level, successful negotiations will require agreement on a complex and sensitive set of issues like convincing the Taliban to cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorists, enforcing a cease-fire, removing all foreign forces and monitoring Taliban compliance.
Negotiations at the domestic level are even more difficult. On the Afghan side, President Ashraf Ghani would likely face intense opposition from some Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara and even Pashtun leaders who do not trust the Taliban and have searing historical memories of tit-for-tat brutality in cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Taloqan. Depending on the specifics of a deal, the Taliban might also face strong objections from some of its more hardline constituencies, such as the Haqqani Network. Settlement discussions frequently cause hardline factions to break away and continue to fight, like the Real Irish Republican Army did in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.
For all of these reasons, the odds are stacked against a successful peace deal. According to many proponents of withdrawal, the United States has no major strategic interests left in Afghanistan, and, regardless, a military presence would not achieve U.S. objectives at an acceptable cost. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been severely weakened because of a relentless counterterrorism campaign, according to this view, and U.S. forces are no longer needed in Afghanistan to combat a diminished threat. Others in the region should pick up the burden in blood and treasure. Policymakers and the public need to carefully think through the implications of such a move, since a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan would carry serious risks.
If the United States were to withdraw all of its military forces from Afghanistan, what might occur? Answering this question first requires understanding regional balance of power politics, since both the Afghan government and the Taliban receive aid from foreign powers.
To begin with, it is difficult to overstate the psychological impact that a U.S. military withdrawal would have in Kabul and other capitals. An American departure would almost certainly trigger a withdrawal of European and other allied forces from the country. Today, there are approximately 14,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and nearly 8,000 military personnel from NATO and other partner countries. Outside of the United States, the largest troop-contributing countries include Germany (approximately 1,300 personnel) and Italy (approximately 900). In addition, European countries—including the European Union—provide significant financial assistance to the Afghan government through two main trust funds: the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan. While continuing financial assistance might prevent an immediate collapse of the Afghan government, the withdrawal of U.S. and European forces would shift the balance of power in favor of a Taliban that is already receiving significant outside aid.
The Pakistan government—especially the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI—continues to offer several types of assistance. It provides money, intelligence, and lethal and non-lethal material to the Taliban and other groups. Pakistan also provides housing and logistics to some Taliban leaders, including allowing the group to establish a sanctuary on its soil with notable freedom to operate. The Taliban’s leadership, or Rahbari Shura, is situated in Pakistan. Examples include Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s leader (or emir); his deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqub; and a range of senior leaders like Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Ahmadullah Nanai, Abdul Latif Mansur and Noor Mohammad Saqib. The Taliban’s main regional shuras are also located in Pakistan in such areas as Quetta, North Waziristan and Peshawar.
Pakistan has long been involved in Afghanistan to protect its national security interests. Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Islamabad and New Delhi have been involved in a balance of power struggle that has led to several wars. Both lay claim to Jammu and Kashmir, and both have nuclear weapons. India remains a major ally of Afghanistan and provides substantial assistance to the government in Kabul. Part of Pakistan’s concern—as one senior ISI official explained to me—is a “double squeeze” by New Delhi. Pakistan leaders assess that their country is surrounded by hostile neighbors: India to its south and east, and Afghanistan to its north and west. In addition to Pakistan, other regional powers—such as Iran and Russia—have provided aid to the Taliban.
A U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan would shift the balance of power heavily in favor of the Taliban and its outside supporters, including Pakistan.
With this change in the balance of power, one of the Taliban’s most important initial steps would be to ramp up its propaganda campaign with a simple, but powerful message: a Taliban victory is inevitable without U.S. military forces. The goal would be to encourage defections from the Afghan army and police forces, co-opt militia commanders across the country, threaten Afghan government collaborators and woo locals to either support the Taliban, stand aside or face likely death. Popular mobilization is essential to any successful insurgency, as the Chinese leader and insurgent Mao Zedong remarked: “Without question, the fountainhead of guerrilla warfare is in the masses of the people.” The Taliban’s propaganda campaign—which is designed to mobilize the Afghan population—already labels the Afghan government as corrupt, weak and religiously bankrupt. It also lauds the Taliban as more effective in establishing justice and enforcing Islamic law—what Taliban propaganda has referred to as “legitimate jihadi resistance.”
The Taliban has an array of media organizations to conduct propaganda—such as Al-Emarah Studio, Al-Hijrat Studio and Neda al-Jihad Studio—which it would aggressively use in conjunction with military operations. It also has a website, Voice of Jihad, and publications like Al-Samoud magazine (in Arabic), Shahamat (in Pashto) and Shariat (in Urdu). The Taliban would complement these forums with information distributed by local radio programs and word of mouth from allied religious, tribal and other influential figures.
The Taliban’s strategy in taking Kabul in 1996 may provide some clues to its future activity. The Taliban approached tribal leaders and militia commanders and attempted to co-opt them. Taliban leaders claimed to provide moral and religious clarity, since they advocated the return to a purer form of Islam and tried to capitalize on their own momentum by convincing locals that resistance was futile. They used their knowledge of tribal and sub-tribal dynamics to appeal to Pashtuns and, in the cases when they didn’t succeed, often resorted to targeted assassinations to coerce the rest. It was a strategy accomplished at a very personal level, as Taliban leaders who spoke local dialects traveled to villages and district centers. In addition, the Taliban didn’t need to deploy forces throughout the countryside and didn’t have enough forces regardless.
Based on the Taliban’s past and current activity, the group’s broad military strategy would likely include several steps: expanding its control of rural territory in districts near strategically-important cities, conducting assassinations and bombings in urban areas, and eventually attempting to overrun and hold urban areas—including Kabul. Once a few cities fell, the Taliban would almost certainly attempt to create a “domino effect” that encouraged Afghan government defections and facilitated the capture of other cities with minimal fighting. The Taliban have already conducted offensive operations against provincial capitals, though they have failed to hold cities because of effective responses by U.S. special operations forces, U.S. air power and specialized local forces like the Afghan National Army Commandos. In August 2018, for instance, the Taliban conducted a major assault on Ghazni city, temporarily overrunning it. In May 2018, the Taliban briefly held much of the city of Farah before being expelled by U.S. and Afghan forces. In September 2015, Taliban forces besieged the northern city of Kunduz, but were similarly pushed back by U.S. and Afghan forces. The Taliban have also overrun checkpoints, outposts, bases and district centers in all regions of the country.
Based on recent Taliban activity, Taliban leaders might initially focus their operations on the capitals of such provinces as Helmand, Kandahar, Ghazni, Farah, Uruzgan, Kunduz and Zabul. As in previous campaigns, the Taliban would likely lay the groundwork for offensive operations months in advance. They might conduct targeted assassinations of government, tribal and other influential individuals that support the government, as well as preposition fighters, weapons, material and supporters in strategically-important areas. The Taliban could then overrun nearby district centers and recruit additional supporters, collect taxes and plan for expansion. This includes using bases in these districts as staging areas for the eventual push into Afghan cities. They might also overrun nearby jails and release the prisoners, including Taliban prisoners, as they did in Ghazni in August 2018 and Kunduz in September 2015. Taliban fighters would then move into cities from positions in nearby districts, villages and suburbs by overrunning government checkpoints and bases, cutting off telecommunication links, blocking major highways and then seizing urban areas. The Taliban could then use these victories to eventually seize Kabul.
The Taliban has as many as 60,000 to 70,000 fighters, compared to approximately 312,000 Afghan army and police forces. If the Taliban can increase its control of populated areas and operate at a high tempo against an Afghan force roughly five times larger with U.S. support, as it is doing today, the Taliban will be able to expand its control of territory more quickly without U.S. forces. Among the Taliban’s most competent organizations, which it would use in attacking cities, is the Red Unit (or Sara Kheta in Pashto). It is an elite force that is better trained and equipped than ordinary Taliban forces. Some fighters from the Red Unit have sported Russian-made night vision goggles and American-made M-4 assault rifles equipped with laser pointers for effective sniper activity.
While it is likely that the Afghan government would eventually fall to the Taliban following a departure of U.S. military forces, it is unclear how quickly the Taliban would seize Kabul. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, the CIA predicted the imminent collapse of the Najibullah government: “We judge that Mohammed Najibullah’s regime will not long survive the completion of Soviet withdrawal even with continued Soviet assistance. . . The regime may fall before withdrawal is complete.” Other U.S. experts on Afghanistan predicted the quick overthrow of the Najibullah government by the mujaheddin. “Without the Soviets, it was believed, the Kabul government’s morale would plummet, the regime would disintegrate and the mujaheddin would sweep victoriously forward,” wrote Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. diplomat and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, in January 1990. But Najibullah was able to cling to power for several more years because of continuing Soviet aid and infighting between mujahideen factions.
The timing of Kabul’s collapse following a U.S. departure might depend on several variables. The first is whether—and to what extent—the United States and other international donors continue to provide military, financial and other aid to the Afghan government and anti-Taliban groups. In the six months following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, for example, Moscow flew nearly 4,000 planeloads of weapons and supplies into Afghanistan and aided urban and rural militias. International aid could help stall the collapse of the government, but only temporarily. A second factor is the speed of deterioration of Afghan security forces. Afghan army and police units could fracture along ethnic and patronage lines, as units support local militia commanders. The quicker that Afghan government units disintegrate either because they defect to the Taliban or fragment into local militias, the quicker the Taliban will be able to seize and hold territory. A third factor is whether the Taliban faces a serious challenge from other groups, such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province, that force it to divert resources away from fighting Afghan army and police units.
In addition, the Taliban could face challenges in quickly controlling all of Afghanistan. The group’s ideology is too extreme for many Afghans—particularly urban Afghans—who adhere to a much less conservative form of Islam that permits most modern technology, music, political participation and some women’s rights. The Taliban have utilized brutal tactics, including bombings and suicide attacks that have killed civilians, which have led to widespread international condemnation and undermined its support in Afghanistan. Taliban suicide attacks have been especially devastating, killing thousands of Afghan civilians—including women and children—and maiming tens of thousands of others over the past decade.
The Taliban is also involved in widespread corruption and its track record in governing Afghanistan has been abysmal. According to data from the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, the Taliban was the worst-performing government in the world during its reign. Its expansive involvement in virtually all aspects of the opium trade today indicates that it is becoming a major drug cartel, in addition to an insurgent group. Drug revenue accounts for over half of the Taliban’s total financing and is the single most important source of revenue for local commanders. Consequently, a Taliban victory would not likely be the end of conflict, even if the group successfully overthrew the government in Kabul.
Still, a Taliban overthrow of the Afghan government—or even control of significant portions of the country—would have several implications for U.S. national security. First, it would almost certainly be viewed by jihadist groups as a major victory. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was a substantial source of inspiration and recruitment for Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden used the Soviet defeat as a rallying cry and source of inspiration until his death. A U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could have a similar psychological impact for the global jihadist community.
Second, Afghanistan could become a terrorist sanctuary with a Taliban victory, including for groups like Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (Al Qaeda’s local affiliate), the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic State Khorasan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups.
These groups can continue to enjoy a safe haven in Afghanistan even if the Taliban promised to break ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorists. If the Afghan and Pakistani governments have failed to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from their territory, why would the Taliban be able to do it?
All of these groups have a presence in Afghanistan and have conducted or inspired attacks against the U.S. homeland, U.S. forces, U.S. government installations (such as embassies) in Afghanistan and Americans and other Westerners in nearby countries like India. Next to Syria, Afghanistan has the largest number of jihadist fighters and allies anywhere in the world—including compared to countries like Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria and Somalia.
A Taliban victory would likely serve as a magnet for jihadists across the globe, who wished to live in a country governed by sharia (Islamic law) and were inspired by the Taliban’s successes. The group’s previous reign in Afghanistan, which lasted from 1996 to 2001, attracted Al Qaeda members and other extremists. Another era of Taliban rule would likely have the same result. Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal is illustrative: the Islamic State took advantage of the vacuum and seized significant areas in Syria and Iraq.
Third, a successful Taliban-led insurgency would deal a severe blow to human rights development in the country. The Taliban remain deeply opposed to women’s rights and would likely reverse progress in a country that has experienced a notable rise in the number of female business owners; female government officials; and primary, secondary and university students. Girls, barred from education under the Taliban, now account for 39 percent of public school students in Afghanistan. The Afghan Parliament has set aside sixty-nine of its 250 seats in the lower house for women, while the upper house includes twenty-seven female members of parliament out of its 102 members. Much of this would likely be overturned. In addition, a Taliban victory would almost certainly increase refugee flows out of Afghanistan. Afghan refugees are already the second-largest refugee population in Europe next to Syria, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This situation would almost certainly become worse if the current government falls to the Taliban.
Fourth, a Taliban victory could increase regional instability and security competition, as countries like India and Pakistan support a mix of central government forces, sub-state militias and insurgent groups. Afghanistan would further deteriorate into a proxy war among Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Based on the implications of a complete U.S. military withdrawal, Washington has several options, none of them favorable. The United States can withdraw all forces, but continue providing military and non-military assistance to the government and local actors. As the Soviet experience in the early 1990s illustrates, however, continuing outside assistance might only slow down—not stop—a potential government collapse.
Alternatively, the United States could keep a small counterterrorism force of several hundred or a thousand personnel in place as part of a phased withdrawal. U.S. special operations forces could work with the CIA, other intelligence agencies, NATO special operations forces, and high-end Afghan units like the Ktah Khas and Afghan National Army Commandos to capture or kill Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorists. The United States might also utilize limited “enablers,” such as unmanned aerial vehicles and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. But this option has substantial risks: U.S. forces would have little or no capabilities to assist the Afghan government in its war with the Taliban. With a major U.S. retrenchment that involved withdrawing most U.S. forces and enablers from Afghan provinces, the Taliban would likely conclude it could defeat Afghan forces militarily, overrun major cities and ultimately seize Kabul.
Finally, the United States could keep a force of roughly 7,000 to 14,000 U.S. soldiers, with European and other international partners. While this force size and posture is probably not sufficient to defeat the Taliban, it is likely sufficient to prevent a Taliban takeover of the government and control of urban areas. Washington’s goals would be limited: aggressively pursue terrorists that threaten the United States, prevent Taliban forces from overthrowing Kabul, and encourage a more sustainable and effective Afghan government. The Afghan government may not defeat insurgents in the near term, but it wouldn’t lose either.
Out of all the available options, this one is the least bad one. But President Donald Trump may be willing to play roulette in Afghanistan and gamble on withdrawal. He may hope that history turns out differently than the last time the Soviet Union and the United States abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, which indirectly led to 9/11. But the odds are stacked against him.
Seth G. Jones holds the Harold Brown Chair and is director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, dc. He was a senior advisor for U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan and is the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (W.W. Norton).