The choices that NATO, the US and the UK now face in Afghanistan when dealing with the Taliban will involve unpleasant compromises, but it is necessary for Western governments to start deciding on their priorities and considering their options.
The collapse of the Afghan government and the subsequent crisis in Kabul constitute a policy failure of the highest order. However, policymakers must move beyond contemplating the tragedy of the current situation. This outcome was predictable, but decision-making was marked by a lack of foresight, unrealistic expectations and a fixation on whether decisive positive outcomes were possible. Preventative actions were not taken, and the response was sluggish even when emerging problems were recognised. The same mistakes must not be repeated, for a set of definable future challenges are already emerging. These may not become crises for several months, and the US, the UK, NATO and the international community as a whole now have the opportunity to prepare for them.
The Future Afghanistan
From now on, Kabul is likely to be controlled by one or more Taliban factions. The process of establishing an internal power-sharing agreement between themselves and whichever non-Taliban leaders can be brought into the organisation through negotiation is underway, although there is a possibility that the group might violently fragment. However, a core Taliban group will likely hold Kabul and much of the country. The Taliban will face many of the same challenges that the former Afghan government did, and will struggle to govern and be seen as legitimate outside of their core constituencies, whether they federalise the country and attempt to find appropriate local leaders to govern the provinces on their behalf, or try to centralise power in Kabul and coerce any internal opposition. NATO attempted to build both a federalised and centralised state at various stages in its 20-year mission, and both approaches to governance ran into insurmountable problems of local illegitimacy, corruption and endemic insecurity. Under either model, what control the Taliban do exert will be tenuous, and there will be numerous ungoverned spaces beyond their reach.
It is with this predicted regime that the international community must find a way to engage. The Taliban seek international recognition, which may moderate how they govern, but the regime will still be brutal, repressive and inflexible. The Taliban will therefore be kept at arm’s length by most other countries and denied broad formal international recognition, even by those countries interested in building a relationship. However, discrete cooperation on narrow issues of mutual interest will inevitably be necessary. This will unfortunately lead to several conflicting imperatives that must be managed.
The ongoing counterterrorism campaign looks to be the principal security consideration. Commitments by the Taliban to prevent terrorists from establishing a presence run counter to the group’s continuous collaboration with Al-Qa’ida, and should not be taken seriously. The exception is the Islamic State, whom the Taliban have historically fought and against whom there is some scope for cooperation. But if the Taliban do attempt to suppress other groups within Afghanistan’s borders to encourage international acceptance, they are unlikely to be successful due to their limited capacity. When terrorist organisations become too threatening, the US and the UK will therefore have to strike inside Afghanistan themselves, as the Biden administration has indicated is possible, targeting networks and facilities to disrupt threats.
If cooperation with the Taliban proves impossible or will be too limited to be useful, there are other options for establishing access. An Afghan resistance movement is coalescing around figures such as the interim president, Amrullah Saleh, who claims with some justification to represent a continuation of the internationally recognised Afghan government, and Ahmad Massoud, son of a famous Mujahideen leader. Their movement suffers from many of the problems which collapsed the Afghan government in the first place. Furthermore, they are militarily weak, and many of the supporters upon whom they might draw are geographically scattered and psychologically reeling. Those of the Afghan National Security Forces which did not surrender are dispersed around the country, fleeing the Taliban. The remnants of the government’s forces and their allied tribal militias which have mustered in Panjshir number in the low thousands, and may prove able to do little more than ensure their own survival. Nevertheless, they may prove a useful proxy, if the political will exists to work with Afghan resistance forces so soon after committing to total withdrawal.
There is also the question of from where to base counterterrorist operations. The loss of access inherent to ‘over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism necessitates complex workarounds. Without the military advisor network, diplomatic presence, basing infrastructure, and local intelligence and understanding that were provided either by the residual NATO coalition presence in-country or the Afghan government, striking at terrorists from outside Afghanistan will be less precise, less effective and more expensive.
Furthermore, Pakistan may no longer be the ally of choice for NATO due to weariness with its convoluted suppression of and simultaneous support for the Taliban. India may play a role, but one limited by geography, distance and India’s turbulent relationship with Pakistan.
The main alternatives are the Gulf states and the Central Asian republics. The former are at a significant distance from Afghanistan, are separated from it physically by the Gulf, and will require Pakistani approval for overflight rights and air access, although the relationships and basing are established and will need little expansion. The latter benefit from geographic proximity, and the shared cultural understanding and intelligence support that the Central Asian republics could offer would be particularly beneficial, albeit not as extensive as that provided by Pakistan. However, relations between NATO and the Central Asian republics are comparatively shallow, and are complicated by their close relationship with Russia. Significant work must be done by the US, the UK and NATO to explore and expand potential ties and get agreements and permissions in place.
The other core policy issue is that of impending humanitarian catastrophe. By some estimates, over 14 million Afghans face ‘high levels of acute food insecurity’, a problem exacerbated by low precipitation hindering crop production. Afghanistan has always suffered from periodic droughts, which critically threaten three million Afghans this year. These have not produced a true famine since 1971–73, largely thanks to intervention by international development agencies, although in 2001 the Taliban’s mismanagement of the agricultural sector and the economy more generally brought the country perilously close. Currently, climate change and population growth trends indicate the risk is greater than ever and will only increase further. Compounding these problems are: the coronavirus pandemic; a surge of new refugees displaced by the fighting; and the fact that the collapse of the Afghan government has destroyed the country’s already-limited economic stability, and will have rendered the international agricultural support programmes that many Afghan farmers rely upon undeliverable.
Mitigating against the coming crisis is thus more difficult than ever, and will require cooperation with the Taliban, who will decide how much access to allow to international development and humanitarian relief agencies. However, this intersects awkwardly with the need to exert leverage over the Taliban to assure counterterrorist operations. The Taliban will be able to trade humanitarian access off against counterterrorism cooperation. This may be a direct trade-off to protect their own terrorist allies, or both could be used in tandem to gain leeway in other policy areas. This may include international acquiescence to their ultra-conservative social policies, economic concessions such as reduced sanctions, or even eventual participation in the mainstream international financial system. Humanitarian access will therefore be very much a competing imperative with other policy areas, and the US and the UK must decide exactly what their priorities are and what types of leverage they are willing to exert.
Overall, the choices facing NATO, the US and the UK are exceptionally ugly. They will involve a high expenditure of resources, capacity and political capital to regain a proportion of the options that were available before the fall of the Afghan government. However, it is necessary to make the best of a bad situation. Relinquishing the illusory prospect of decisive outcomes, focusing on the new frameworks that must be established to provide future policy options, and accepting that the goal now is to reduce or mitigate against further harm – as it always should have been – would be a good start.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.