Friday, October 22, 2021
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Afghanistan: Losers Can’t Be Choosers

Front end line: There are indications that the Taliban have no intention of reaching a compromise and believe they can retake Afghanistan soon after the US withdrawal. Comparisons to the survival of the Najibullah government can be misleading. A possible evacuation of the international community should be manageable but would involve its risks.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey, expert in short figures, former senior member of the UK Foreign Office

Encryption expert in brief Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London. His first overseas assignment was in Angola during the Cold War, then in Central America during the instability of the late 1980s. Click here for his full biography.

The Afghan Taliban have no intention of reaching a compromise with the United States, the NATO countries or the Afghan government. This was explained to me recently by a South Asian politician close to the leadership of the Taliban. In response to the argument that a united Afghan government would be a better outcome than a Pashtun Islamist state, his pithy response was “Losers can’t choose.”

There is also a certain contempt for some of the channels used to organize a putative summit in Istanbul. Far from being revered by the Taliban as a beacon of Islamist assertiveness, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is viewed with deep suspicion because of his support for the Uzbek warlord and former commander of the Northern Alliance Abdul Rashid Dostum. In addition, the efforts of the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army (COAS) Qamar Bajwa to persuade the Taliban to go to Istanbul would risk weakening the future influence of the Pakistani military on the Taliban.

The United States places great faith in Bajwa’s ability to get the Taliban to negotiate a deal in Afghanistan, but Bajwa is not as free to keep his commitments as Washington might think. Bajwa’s current power stems from his rule over a weakened prime minister and his authority over the military. However, he will know that he must retain the support of his corps commanders and that means not straying too far from political areas controlled by the military; namely India, Kashmir and Afghanistan. Afghan policy is to ensure that India cannot gain a foothold in Afghanistan, which (according to the military) is best achieved by supporting a Pashtun Islamist party. Bajwa’s tenure as SFOC lasts until November 2022, long enough to make short-term tactical moves, but not long enough to change course.

All of these factors will encourage the Taliban (who know the inner workings of the Pakistani military better than most) to play in the long run, confident that the Pakistani military will remain steadfast in the long run. The Taliban may also suspect that Bajwa is playing his mediating role to impress the Americans and that he too will revert to normal political parameters once the last NATO soldier is gone.

According to my sources, the Taliban are convinced that they can take Kabul “in the days” following the NATO withdrawal and they believe that the Afghan army is “in shambles and demoralized”. While the Taliban will not disrupt the departure of US troops (unless attacked), they are unwilling to wait until September to continue their campaign against government forces in Kabul.

These claims are reminiscent of those of 1989, following the Soviet withdrawal when the Mujahedin believed they would overthrow the government of President Mohamed Najibullah in a matter of weeks. In fact, Najibullah survived for 3 years against a series of insurgent groups that had the backing of Pakistan and the Gulf states and were still well equipped with Western weapons supplied over the previous decade. In fact, it was not until the Russians actively undermined Najibullah and cut off his supplies that his government finally collapsed and the Mujahedin began their disastrous struggle for control of Kabul.

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But we should not be very reassured by Najibullah’s example. Comparisons with Afghanistan today are misleading. Najibullah’s government was able to reach and supply all the major cities by military convoy. The Afghan army has been deployed to protect towns and road communications. In contrast, in 2021, only the road between Kabul and Jalalabad is reasonably safe. Convoys cannot go from Kabul to Kandahar, from Kandahar to Herat or from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif. The Afghan army is spread across the country in piecemeal district centers (often surrounded by Taliban-controlled countryside) and must be resupplied by air. It is not a sustainable model.

In addition, a number of today’s Afghan military leaders, officials and officers have received offers of relocation to the United States, Germany and elsewhere. As the security situation continues to deteriorate, the gradual net of departures is expected to accelerate. Under such circumstances, the government could suddenly implode. In 1989, few Afghan officials wanted to seek refuge in the Soviet Union, where the economy was in decline. Today, some Afghans have become relatively prosperous thanks to the international largesse of the past 20 years. This offers emigration options that did not exist in 1989.

It is important that Western countries do not spur the fall of the Afghan government by closing their embassies in Kabul, as Australia has done. There is no doubt that NATO military planners are working on contingency plans in case an emergency evacuation from the international community is required. It is likely that such an operation would be successful as the airlift of aliens in 1928 by Royal Air Force planes from Kabul to Peshawar. The Taliban could promise diplomatic missions protection, and Pakistan would certainly allow its territory to be used for the rescue of the international community. However, it would be a high-risk operation with a number of challenges such as distance, weather, terrorism, surface-to-air fire, and chance.

To some, it may conjure up images of the fall of Saigon in 1975, with the big losers being the Afghans who remain, especially women, who face a future of uncertainty and anxiety. There could also be a migration crisis reminiscent of Syria’s over the past decade.

Hopefully the Taliban’s confidence is misplaced and that they fail to advance against the Afghan army and eventually accept the merits of a negotiated settlement. Such a result seems utopian at the moment and would require more international support than what has been visible in recent months.

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