Updated: September 2, 2021 7:17:15 am
Ever since the fall of Kabul a little more than two weeks ago, the long-anticipated collapse of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), a “half-determined” President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, the “mightier” Taliban walking into Kabul and the “much weaker” Panjshir holding out have dominated the narrative on Afghanistan. Amidst tragic events, several puzzles remain. They hold the key to a proper appreciation of the threats that Afghanistan, the region and the world could face in the next decade.
All stakeholders have often repeated that the ANDSF was expected to take on the Taliban but failed to do so. Under an elected government, with funding up to 2024 and assurance of off-shore training and maintenance, over-the-horizon support from the US Central Command for common counter-terrorism targets, diplomatic and humanitarian assistance and security of Kabul airport by Turkish forces, the ANDSF did conduct itself professionally till early August. It is widely known now that the unspoken Western assessment was that despite all support, the ANDSF could hold out for one or two years.
The earnest recruiting and training of the ANDSF by the US-NATO started around 2009, when the US initiated a troop surge to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and give time and space to the ANDSF to grow. On January 1, 2015, total security responsibilities were handed over to the young security outfit, which had 3,00,000 troops, according to the US auditor SIGAR. Since then, the ANDSF has been at the forefront of the conflict, suffering heavy casualties.
Till the signing of the Doha agreement, the ANDSF prevented the fall of provincial capitals and border crossings, stopped the Taliban from taking permanent control of highways, maintained control over more than 250 district centres — though some districts did change hands — and did not allow ISIS or Pakistan proxies like ISKP or AQIS to increase their footprint across Afghanistan. The outfit faced complex challenges in managing police functions, safeguarding borders, protecting people and fighting Pakistan-backed insurgency. The terrain in Afghanistan did not permit permanent posts and patrols across many parts. Such areas became the Taliban’s bastions. Since the ANDSF was dependent on foreign funds, financial compulsions may have prevented mobilising troops to defeat the Taliban at several places. The stakeholders, therefore, resolved that a negotiated political settlement was the only way to end the insurgency.
The Doha agreement disregarded the fact that the foreign forces and the ANDSF had teamed up successfully, forcing the Taliban to the peace talks — this implicitly allowed Pakistan to take all the credit. The agreement negotiated a deal for “no attacks” on foreign forces, leaving the Taliban with more resources to take on the ANDSF. The ANDSF’s demoralisation started from this point. Post-Doha, the ANDSF and civilians faced very high levels of violence. The reduction of foreign forces from January this year further demoralised the ANDSF, giving the Taliban an incentive to not negotiate with the Afghan government at all.
The change of regime in the US had raised hopes that the drawdown could slow down or reverse to help the ANDSF push the Taliban to negotiate on reasonable terms. However, the April 16 announcement of complete withdrawal by September gave a fillip to the Taliban. According to SIGAR, by June-end, less than 1,000 foreign personnel remained. Thousands of contractors were gone, severely disabling the Afghan Air Force and jeopardising the transport of frontline special forces — which held the key to defeating the Taliban — across Afghanistan.
Still, between April 16 and July 2, the ANDSF ensured that provincial centres were not overrun and border crossings were safe. The withdrawal from Bagram on July 2 sent the final signal that the ANDSF was on its own. The Pakistan-Taliban combine began a forcible occupation of border crossings, highways and provincial capitals. Notably, even in July, the ANDSF proved its mettle by pushing back the Taliban in key capitals of Lashkargah and Kandahar.
However, between August 6 and 15, all provincial capitals fell without much fight. Did the ANDSF sense that political manoeuvres were overtaking professional assessments and that its own government was powerless to influence external actors? The pictures of Mullah Baradar as a state guest at Doha and elsewhere in the region signal the lack of real involvement of Afghanistan in deciding its own future. The ANDSF must have been acutely aware that retribution was a reality, should the Taliban join an interim government or form one. Did the agency feel that political, moral and functional support for it had become only notional? There was no Northern Alliance, nor was any significant country offering help.
On August 14, many embassies started emergency evacuations and the next day, the Taliban was at the gates of Kabul. They looked equally unprepared, clueless about managing even traffic or crowds. It appears that, though powerless, the Afghan top brass directly supervising the ANDSF — and the ANDSF itself — could see the writing on the wall and moved out of harm’s way well in time.
The pro-withdrawal narrative that the region was a “free beneficiary” of the security provided by the US and NATO had gained currency. Was the narrative so strong that it disregarded the potential reversal of gains made over 20 years? Or has the Great Power competition with China and Russia tipped the balance with the expectation that these powers will have to get sucked into Afghanistan?
Recent events have thrown up many such puzzles. Won’t Afghanistan become opaque to the world the day the evacuations are over? With the internet, airport and borders shut, the only access to Afghanistan will be through the Taliban. Will Russia-China or the West contemplate supporting resistance movements to keep the Taliban in check? Will the ANDSF become part of this resistance?
Will the big powers rely on the Taliban — an entity lacking professional skills and one that needs to prove its intentions — for counter-terrorism operations? Can big powers afford to give legitimacy and aid to the Taliban and ensure funds are not used by extremists? Will the Taliban be able to show “absence of corruption” in its dealings with citizens, a key yardstick for Western aid?
Will Pakistan be comfortable with a Pashtun Amir-ul-Momineen in Afghanistan gaining traction in its tribal belt? Will Pakistan allow all key Taliban leaders, such as Qayyum Zakir and Maulvi Kabir, to move their families and assets to Afghanistan and lose full control?
Much more is likely to emerge from this conundrum in the coming weeks and months. There is no single actor — including the Taliban — who knows it all or can guide events to come. This means that the fall of Afghanistan is a bad omen for countries far beyond the region.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 31, 2021 under the title ‘The great unknown in Kabul’. The writer is an IPS officer. Views are personal
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