U.S. and NATO troops are rapidly executing President Biden’s policy of a complete withdrawal of American troops and contractors supporting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) by a deadline of September 11. Based on the rate of progress, the last American soldier could depart before the end of July. The decision to withdraw without a cease-fire or a framework for a political agreement between the Taliban and the government caught Afghans and regional countries by surprise. The Taliban have capitalized on the moment to seize dozens of districts and project an air of confidence and victory.
In a visit to Kabul last week, there was palpable alarm among political leaders and citizens that the accelerated withdrawal is causing a vacuum the Taliban are eager to fill. Here are seven key takeaways from the trip and four things that can be done to strengthen the Afghan Republic in its fight against the Taliban.
What is the State of Play?
1. The security situation is alarming.
The Taliban have both psychological and military momentum as U.S. troops depart. District capitals are falling to the Taliban at a quickening pace. Some are remote and non-strategic but others are along key transportation routes that link provincial capitals to Kabul. Afghan security forces suffer from low morale and frequent changes in leadership and supply shortages caused by poor planning and the withdrawal of international air support. The next six months are expected to be increasingly violent, with the military wing of the Taliban ascendant in decision-making and seeing a way to win without having to compromise at the negotiating table. Many Afghans emphasized the need for a momentum-slowing victory against the Taliban in key terrain that proves there is, indeed, no military path to victory and peace talks are the best way to resolve the insurgency.
2. Humanitarian needs, including increasing numbers of internally displaced persons, are growing due to a combination of COVID, conflict and drought.
A third wave of COVID has gripped the country and appears to be more contagious and deadly than the previous round. Concerns about death from COVID are secondary to concerns about Taliban violence. But the effect on the overall economy and future livelihoods will be equally profound. The COVID situation is increasingly dire, with more than 96,000 current cases, according to the World Health Organization. The two main hospitals in Kabul have shuttered their doors to new patients due to lack of beds and oxygen supply. Amid foreign withdrawal and a deteriorating security situation, this third COVID wave will be worse than the previous two. Internally displaced persons are also on the rise from conflict and drought, straining the government’s ability to provide basic services.
3. The government needs more political unity and stronger leadership.
Afghans across the political spectrum expressed concern about greater ethnic divisions among society and perceived ethnic biases in the appointment of government officials. Political leaders recognize they are stronger together against the Taliban. But deep mistrust and political selfishness have impeded progress on a proposed High State Council that would expand the tent of the government to include Abdullah Abdullah and former president Karzai, along with other political leaders, in decisions on peace and security that have national significance. So far, the political crisis has been seen as an opportunity to settle past disputes about power-sharing within the Republic rather than to unite to confront the existential threat posed by the Taliban. The sense outside of government is that the leadership is failing to grasp the urgency of the situation.
4. The rapid U.S troop withdrawal is undermining ANDSF capability and morale.
As U.S. and NATO troops “retrograde” ahead of schedule, it is clear that the complexity of 20 years of integrated support of the ANDSF cannot be untangled smoothly in just a few months. Unforeseen regulatory and contracting obstacles have created gaps in ANDSF supply contracts and maintenance and operations, especially for the Afghan Airforce. The Afghan government is rushing to find new ammunition suppliers, arrange independent fuel contracts and hire non-American maintenance crews to fix their helicopters. Positive messages about continued financial assistance to the military are immediately undercut by news stories about how many bases have been handed over, how much equipment has been removed or destroyed, and how little “over-the-horizon" air support the ANDSF can expect. This mixed messaging has had a profound and negative effect on political and military morale.
5. The Doha peace process is dormant for now.
While the Taliban and Afghan Republic negotiating teams continue to meet in Doha in hopes of working out an agenda for talks, the broader prospects for meaningful negotiations are dim. Most Afghans we met with that are close to the negotiation process believe that the Taliban were never serious about negotiations. In their view, the Taliban came to the table only to fulfill the minimum conditions of the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement for a U.S. troop withdrawal while they consolidated their fighting strength. Now the Taliban have even less incentive to talk amid a highly successful fighting campaign and U.S. troops on the way out. There are discussions underway to have more senior leaders from both sides meet and establish negotiation terms once foreign forces are out of the country. If it is possible to pivot from a U.S.-centric negotiation to a true intra-Afghan discussion, there should be more active facilitation of talks by the U.N. or some other third party to link regional powers to the talks and advance an agenda that addresses the substantive issues underlying the conflict.
6. Regional powers now share a greater burden of the Afghan conflict and have a greater impact on its trajectory.
None of Afghanistan’s neighbors — China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — nor Russia or India, benefit from a Taliban takeover or a full civil war. The disruption to regional trade and flows of refugees are major concerns, along with the destabilizing effects of regional rivals supporting different proxies in a brutal civil war. Therefore, the temptation for regional powers to hedge and support proxies must be countered with meaningful support for the government and a peace process. Pakistan has the greatest regional influence on the trajectory of the conflict. It got what it wanted in terms of a U.S. exit and the Taliban as a viable part of the Afghan political landscape. But Islamabad still needs to decide its preferred end-state and what leverage it is willing to exert on the Taliban to get it. Time is of the essence to lend full support to a negotiation process and restrict the Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan lest the militant group gain so much momentum that their military strength outweighs Pakistan’s influence to stop them.
7. Afghan civil society is under extreme strain from shrinking space to operate.
Assassinations of civil society leaders and journalists plus threats from the Taliban, lack of protection from the government and general uncertainty about the future are fueling a brain drain of leaders who can leave and suppression of those who want to stay. Women are deeply insecure about their future rights. Civil society leaders emphasize that their priority is achieving harmony and violence reduction within their community and not just the controversial aspects of political power-sharing at the national level. There is acute interest in ensuring that any compromises with the Taliban in negotiations ensure basic rights are not traded away for a short-term peace. Civil society leaders need to find new ways to influence the government and the Taliban, however, as Western donors’ influence of those actors diminishes.
Where to Go From Here?
Given the sobering situation, four lines of effort are urgently needed to stabilize the Afghan state and promote a peaceful political settlement in a way that protects U.S. security interests, regional stability and Afghan lives.
1. Strengthen the Afghan government, broaden its support among the Afghan people and support civil society engagement in the peace process.
Forming an inclusive High State Council would be an important signal that the government is making decisions that respond to constituents in all regions of the country. But the content of decisions is most important. Choosing respected and capable leaders in the ANDSF and ensuring that provincial governors have local support are top priorities. Preserving the current Republic is the first priority to protect the gains in rights and freedoms that were achieved after the Bonn Agreement.
A potential bright spot is that grassroots demand for peace is very high. The challenge is to convert this broad desire into mobilization and pressure on political and Taliban leaders through a social movement for peace — particularly when peaceful protests are often targeted with suicide bombs. With international support, civil society can help foster national unity, apply pressure to the Taliban and Afghan government and ensure a greater diversity of Afghan voices are included in peace efforts.
2. Strengthen the Afghan security forces and enhance their ability to withstand the test posed by the ongoing Taliban offensive.
U.S. and NATO partners have already announced their continued economic support to the ANDSF. Increasing this amount modestly over time would help to reinforce the message and boost morale. Transitioning contract mechanisms for supplies and maintenance is an urgent priority to avoid a loss of military capability. Air strikes to defend ANDSF positions if key provincial centers or Kabul are threatened will be important leverage against the Taliban.
3. Catalyze increased regional support of the peace process.
Regional countries have expressed a general interest in avoiding either a civil war or a return of the Taliban’s Emirate. Now it is important to operationalize those goals at the peace talks in Doha. Jean Arnault’s appointment as the personal envoy of the U.N. secretary-general to mobilize regional support for peace will help to focus the region on the shape of a political settlement. It would also be useful to revive a regional diplomatic forum that includes the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran that can coordinate diverse international support for the peace talks in Doha.
4. Incentivize the Taliban to reach an inclusive peace agreement ending the war.
The Taliban have benefitted enormously from their 2019 agreement with the United States — achieving their top objective of having foreign troops leave without giving up violence or any political concessions. If they continue to prosecute the war after all foreign troops leave, then sticks will be useful to incentivize a negotiated political settlement. No international sanctions should be lifted and no additional Taliban prisoners should be released unless there is progress in peace talks and reductions in violence. Air support from abroad in the event that Taliban attack major provincial capitals, or closing down the Taliban’s Doha office, could be considered if the Taliban demonstrate a complete unwillingness to engage in substantive peace talks.