What are the possible developments in Afghanistan in the next three to five years after the withdrawal of US forces? In this second article in my three-part blog series, I detail four possible scenarios, ranging from the preservation of the current political system to a protracted civil war. In the first pieceIn this article, I detail four internal factors that influence the likelihood of each scenario. In the third piece القطعI analyze where outsiders hold influence.
Scenario 1: The current arrangement is preserved
Under this scenario, the existing political and social arrangements in Afghanistan will be preserved, with minimal changes to constitution and maintain existing formal civil liberties and human rights, including the rights of women and minorities. Elections will continue, albeit rigged and backed by elite deals, as they have over the past two decades. The Taliban will be given the opportunity to disarm and provide them with demobilization and reintegration assistance, with only some Taliban fighters given opportunities to join the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Some Taliban leaders will also be given positions of power in a few Afghan ministries at the national level, possibly with stronger representation at the provincial level.
This is the result that the Afghan government sought. In essence, this scenario is a defeat for the Taliban project – more at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.
However, the scenario is detached from the Taliban’s military strength and weaknesses in the Afghan National Defense Front, and ignores the deep divisions among Afghanistan’s political elite that the Taliban so deftly seek to deepen. There is little chance that this scenario will materialize. ANDSF will have to survive, effectively on its own, years of Taliban bombing and not just hang on, but dramatically push the militants back.
Scenario Two: A quick deal with the powerful among the Taliban
The second possibility is a relatively quick agreement between the Taliban and some Afghan influencers who broke away from the current Afghan government.
Rather than risking a protracted civil war, the Taliban and its influencers would divide power among themselves, the latter partly driven Ongoing ANDSF Surrender for the Taliban. The Taliban will insist on becoming the most powerful, and possibly dominant, actor in a future government, but it will not be entirely exclusionary and will give sufficient positions of power to the current power holders, including northerners and leaders of other ethnic minorities.
The scenario is much more likely than the first scenario. The Taliban and Afghan mediators have been engaged in intense negotiations for more than two years. In my interviews, many powerbrokers acknowledged that they could imagine such deals emerging and that their economic, political and even security interests could be absorbed through ministerial or technocratic positions in a Taliban-led government.
Of course, not many Afghan politicians will fall with the Taliban until the last minute – when they arrive on the doorstep of important provincial capitals or even Kabul. Until then, many power brokers (who have exit options to places like Dubai where their economic assets are protected) will try to get concessions from both the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, and hedge with both.
A weak government will face decisions about whether to confront influencers dissenting with ANDSF – which threatens to hasten the fragmentation of ANDSF – or leave the country to run a government in exile.
The Taliban power-brokers bargain could be consistent with an Iran-like system emerging in Afghanistan in which the Taliban-dominated Supreme Religious Council allows changes in the executive, perhaps even through elections, but wields ultimate power.
While bloodshed would likely be avoided, such an arrangement would be an elitist bargain that would give little representation to the Afghan population in general, including its young, educated segment. The rights of women and minorities, while perhaps not entirely lost, will be curtailed significantly.
The survival of such a deal will depend on the number of power brokers excluded from power-sharing and economic lease deals and their ability to simultaneously mobilize a sufficiently strong armed opposition in different parts of Afghanistan. It will also depend on whether the Afghan National Defense Forces have collapsed and whether their leaders will attempt a coup against either the current or prospective government. The possibility of a coup and a split of the Syrian Defense and Security Forces is greater than a coup, but an attempted coup cannot be ruled out.
Scenario Three: The Taliban’s Rapid Military Rise
In the third scenario, the Taliban delays making deals with Afghan power brokers until they have clearly captured more territory, particularly many provincial capitals. Currently, the Taliban are in a very auspicious position around at least 12 provincial capitals. With the end of US air support for the Afghan army, the Taliban will likely be in a position to pounce on several provincial capitals simultaneously, increase the ability of the Afghan Special Security Forces to respond, and hold many of them. A chain of perverse events could unfold, including the flight of influencers from Afghanistan (as they were about to do in 2015 when The Taliban temporarily captured the city of Kunduz It seemed ready to move to Takhar province) and defection from ANDSF commanders and units who had made their own deals with the Taliban.
Even Kabul could quickly fall into the hands of the Taliban — or the city’s streets could witness a bloodbath, as two decades of accumulated local resentment over alleged land theft after 2001 turned neighbors and neighborhoods against one another.
The speed of the Taliban’s military rise will affect their willingness to share power, even as some pockets of the country, particularly in the north, remain in the hands of powerful people fighting the Taliban.
In essence, Scenario 3 is a late version of Scenario 2, where the Taliban first demonstrated their military might after leaving the United States.
The fourth scenario: a prolonged civil war and fragmentation
Under the fourth scenario, the Taliban’s apparent military strength is insufficient to allow it to negotiate a sufficient rift among Afghan influencers to seize power in Kabul and the south. This scenario could emerge because the daring Taliban were not willing to share sufficient power with both influential Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, and failed to cement them into the new political system with the Taliban at the helm. Even if the Taliban seize power in Kabul, they will struggle to retain it as an official government. Heavy fighting, if volatile, will continue in different parts of the country.
This scenario may also arise after the Taliban have been in power for some time, if international donors cut off aid. It is unlikely that the Taliban will be able to generate enough help from the Middle East alone or enough money from the drug trade to run the country with more than a minimum of governing functions. With far fewer economic rents distributed, Afghan power brokers will be less inclined to cling to the Taliban-run political system.
However, even this protracted civil war scenario is unlikely to produce a country divided between North and South. First, the political power brokers in the North are largely divided. Second, and most importantly, the Taliban have made their way to the north. The group has military power in the provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakhshan, and Takhar. It nurtured Tajik cadres as well as separated northern Pashtuns due to what they saw as discriminatory rule of the non-Pashtun majority in the northern provinces. These actors are either members of official Taliban units or Taliban proxy militias in the north. Some of the current militia forces, such as some of the former Islamist party, are also likely to defect to the Taliban (having previously turned on the side of the Afghan government).
Moreover, not all northern leaders could count on the loyalties and capabilities of their militias in the 1990s and early 2000s. With assets in Dubai and Kabul, some have been operationally separated from their former cadres for a long time.
Instead, new militias are likely to emerge around new local leaders, many of whom were born from defunct but not effectively demobilized or reintegrated. Afghan Local Police (ALP). As detailed in third piece القطع In this series, many international actors may seek to strengthen it.
However, by 2015, the Taliban managed to crush it Emerging Anti-Taliban Militias The so-called “victors” – who between 2012 and 2014 (in vain as it turned out) were considered key to an effective counterinsurgency effort. The Taliban were able to stamp out the uprising throughout Afghanistan even when the United States was still fully supporting the ALP and ANDSF through offensive operations against the Taliban. The Taliban also learned how to calibrate their governance of local communities toward a greater response to reduce the chance of further uprisings against the Taliban.
Of these four scenarios, a combination of the second and third is the most likely outcome, although pockets of fighting persist in parts of the country.
As I discuss in Final piece In this series, international actors lack the ability to realize the first scenario. But their actions could determine the extent of the losses in the current political distribution of elections and the protection of human rights – although this, unfortunately, may increase the odds of the fourth scenario.