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The collapse of the Afghan state is inevitable—but for the United States, that might not be bad news

The end of the 9/11 war, twenty years after it began, won’t mark the beginning of peace. Instead, a kind of war-making perpetual-motion machine is being built in Afghanistan.

June 30, 2021 / 07:46 PM IST
File photo of peace negotiations that began in Doha in 2020, between the Taliban and a delegation that included Afghan government officials. (Source: Reuters)

File photo of peace negotiations that began in Doha in 2020, between the Taliban and a delegation that included Afghan government officials. (Source: Reuters)

Early on the morning of September 27, 1996, Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai was dragged out of the United Nations compound in Kabul, where he had taken sanctuary. The former Afghan president was beaten, then castrated; his bloodied body was dragged behind a truck before being hung on a traffic light for public display. His body was later buried at a nondescript graveyard in Melan; two years ago, a modest memorial was put up, surrounded by a green, metal fence. Ferocious fighting now rages not far from the grave, as Taliban forces seek to choke the city of Gardez.

“You cannot deny us the drive into Kabul in victory”, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Hamid Gul is believed to have told Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1989. For years, he was denied his wish by Najibullah’s adroit leadership—but the Taliban eventually delivered the ISI its trophy, in the form of the Afghan president’s battered body.

Now, a second triumph seems imminent for Islamabad, and its jihadist proxies. In northern Afghanistan, Taliban forces have laid siege to the key town of Kunduz, capturing its peripheries, the border crossing into Tajikistan, Shir Khan Bandar. Large swathes of the country have already either fallen to the Taliban or are in a state of chaos, careful mapping by the Long War Journal show.

For years, conventional wisdom has held that the United States will step in to prevent the collapse of the Afghan nation-state, which it birthed in the shadows of 9/11 as a keystone of its effort to hold back transnational Islamist terrorism. The conventional wisdom, it's turning out, is probably wrong.

This much, the data makes clear: Afghanistan’s government simply does not have the military resources to contain the Taliban, even assuming international funding continues to arrive.  The country’s security forces have a total authorised strength of 352,000 but have never achieved that end-state. Last summer, 185,478 personnel were serving in the armed forces—the army, special forces and air force—and another 103,224 in the police.

Estimates made by the expert Jonathan Schroden suggest that, deducting for commitments to logistical and support roles, as well as leave, Afghan security forces can field some 180,000 combat personnel on a given day.

To understand how thin these numbers are, the case of Jammu and Kashmir is instructive. India commits some 350,000 soldiers to guard the state—some 80,000 of them in the 62 Rashtriya Rifles battalions and five reserve brigades committed to counter-insurgency—along with 80,000 state police and 65,000 Central police.

India’s forces in Kashmir have to guard some 101,000 square kilometres of territory—well-connected by road, with large swathes of it unaffected by violence, compared to Afghanistan’s 662,225 square kilometre territory, which has primitive logistical infrastructure. The insurgency in Kashmir is, moreover, of orders of magnitude smaller; last year, it claimed 321 lives, to those of 3,378 security forces, 1,468 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents.

For years, Afghan military operations sought to establish a strong presence around major cities and towns, while conducting division and corps-sized offensive operations into Taliban-held territory. Ever since the fall of Kunduz in 2015, the United States has pushed Afghan commanders to move resources towards smaller, offensive operations—but there has been resistance, since leaving territory open to Taliban attack imposes significant costs on the country’s political leadership.

Estimates suggest that these forces are pitted against some 200,000 personnel for the Taliban and affiliated groups like al-Qaeda, made up of some 50,000 core fighters, and another 100,000 committed to local holding operations and facilitators. The Taliban’s chokehold on narcotics-related operations in rural areas, as well as its taxes on mining and transport, are estimated to bring in upwards of $1.5 billion a year.

Taliban forces, moreover, have the advantage of being highly mobile, since they do not have to hold and administer territory; most important, they have the option, under pressure, of retreat into safe havens deep inside Pakistan.

Last year, the United States appropriated $1.6 billion for the Afghan Army, $1.2 billion for the AAF, $728 million for Afghan special forces, and $660 million for the police—a significant cut from the $5-6 billion made available over the previous five years. The data suggests Afghanistan’s security situation is dire, perhaps irretrievable.  The United States, however, seems unwilling to commit the resources that stop the Afghan state from falling apart. The question is: why?

For many experts, the Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement appear to constitute an inexorable, long-term national security threat to the superpower. There’s reason, however, to ask how well-founded this assumption in fact is. Through the Cold War, historian Ian Johnson’s riveting work teaches us, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cultivated jihadists in Europe and the Middle East, seeing them as allies against communism. The United States maintained a cordial relationship, moreover, with the Taliban regime—even as it harboured al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama Bin Laden, as well as other transnational jihadist groups.

In a 1990 meeting, declassified minutes record, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned Najibullah against American claims they were “actually concerned with the danger of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism”.

Even though the United States was concerned with Islamist threats to allies like Iran and Pakistan, Gorbachev went on, “it would be naïve if one permitted the thought that we see only this side of their policy and do not notice other aspects”. “The US is not opposed to fundamentalism becoming the banner of 40 million Soviet Muslims and creating difficulties for the Soviet Union. They object only to it affecting their own interests”.

Today, the elements grouped under the Taliban umbrella again contain potent threats to United States adversaries in the region: Uighur jihadists who hope to take on China; central Asian jihadists hoping to wage war against the region’s Russian-backed regimes; groups with an anti-Shi’a agenda committed to fighting Iran.

For years now, scholars like C. Christine Fair have argued that the United States is fighting the wrong war, and should instead cut Pakistan loose. The United States military has known for years—and publicly complained—the Taliban continues to operate out of safe havens in Pakistan. The Taliban has continued to escalate violence in Afghanistan, in spite of express commitments, and advertised its ties to al-Qaeda.

Yet, United States has chosen to do nothing. The reasons bear consideration. In a best-case scenario, the United States could string together a coalition that shares power in Kabul, with lose control over the country’s regions. The worst-case scenario, a disintegration of central authority, will prove more of a threat to America’s adversaries than itself.

Through Pakistan’s Generals—who have a choke-hold on the Taliban’s logistics and bases—the United States hopes to secure its own counter-terrorism interests, and ensure it continues to exercise influence.

Faced with the withdrawal of Soviet power from Afghanistan, the scholar Antonio Guistozzi has pointed out, Najibullah hit on a skilful survival strategy: “weakening the central state in order to strengthen its capacity to attract consensus”.  Inside months of taking over in 1986, Najibullah ceded power to powerful provincial governors, like Fazel Haq Khaleqyar and Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi. Alliances were developed with people like Abdul Rashid Dostum, who commanded a force of over 45,000 men.

Najibullah’s strategy worked: until the collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to the funding on which his survival depended. This time around, too, a patchwork of militia and warlords seems set to emerge, each fuelled by sponsorship and patronage between the world’s major powers.

The end of the 9/11 war, twenty years after it began, won’t mark the beginning of peace. Instead, a kind of war-making perpetual-motion machine is being built, its cogs and gears made up of little empires competing to harvest what wealth and power rises from Afghanistan’s tormented soil.

Praveen Swami