The US withdrawal from Afghanistan


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For the second time in a generation, Afghanistan and its neighbours are facing the potential collapse of the Afghan state, and the consequences of this collapse for the region. When this occurred in 1992, the result was violent chaos, ethnic massacre, and the restoration of a form of state order by the Taliban – thereby ushering in the new chapter in Afghanistan’s tragedy that began in September 2001. 

This time round, it is highly unlikely that the Taliban will be able to storm into power in Kabul – but at present, it seems equally unlikely that the Taliban and the Kabul-based forces will be able to reach a settlement; or that any Kabul-based government and army without Taliban participation will be able to extend state control to the Pakhtun south and east of the country. The result may be an indefinite civil war, with disastrous consequences for Afghans and severe ones for the entire region. Pakistan is the most endangered country of all by this prospect, and is likely for the foreseeable future to face a situation of anarchy on its western border.

At the heart of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s travails lies the issue of Pashtun fears, hopes and resentments. The Taliban have always assiduously exploited the perception that after the fall of the communist regime in 1992, and once again after the US overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Pakhtuns became victims of domination and oppression by the other ethnic groups. The growth of anti-minority nationalism among the Pakhtuns has been one of the most striking and dangerous developments of the past two decades. The choice of Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pakhtun, as president, was intended to diminish this tendency and did so for a while.

However, the failure of his government to improve the lives of the population, combined with a Pakhtun belief that it remains dominated by non-Pakhtuns, has meant that in recent years Pakhtun grievances have once again become a potent source of Taliban recruitment. Sympathy for the Taliban has also taken deep root among the Pakhtuns of Pakistan.

A key question now facing both Afghanistan and Pakistan is whether once the widely-hated US and western military presence is removed (or reduced to small and less visible elements), Pakhtun support for both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban will recede; or whether hatred of the states in both Kabul and Islamabad is now so great among Taliban supporters that they will continue their struggle regardless of the US withdrawal.

A hopeful vision is given by the leading French expert on Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro (‘Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War’, 2009), “The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban… We have one major political weapon: a progressive and focused scaling down of combat troops on our own terms [my italics]. This would neutralise the Taliban’s appeals for Jihad against unbelieving foreign invaders, open up space for Afghan institutions and political solutions, and allow us to focus our efforts on areas where we can still make a difference.”

As I saw myself in Afghanistan in 1989, foreign military withdrawal can have an effect. With the hated Soviet occupiers gone, hostility to the regime diminished, at least in the cities. The conflict was seen to have reverted to what it had been before the Soviets invaded, namely a civil war between Afghans. As a result, the failings of the mujahideen were highlighted, especially as far as people in the cities were concerned. On the other hand, the Afghan army’s morale improved, since they were no longer subjected to constant humiliating command by the Soviets, and once they had won on their own a solid victory over the mujahideen at Jalalabad in March 1989.

Second, the Kabul state had long since ceased to be a ‘communist’ regime and had become in effect a military one. As such, despite numerous defections and desertions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were the heirs of an Afghan royal military tradition stretching back to Abdur Rahman, and in some respects to the 18th century. Not only was the Afghan army the only moderately successful modernising achievement of the Afghan monarchy, but the great bulk of its military tradition lay in fighting not against outside invaders, but tribal and religious rebels within Afghanistan – of which the mujahideen were the lineal descendants.

By the end of the 1980s the communists had become the heirs of the urban tradition in Afghanistan, now mortally threatened by its own old tribal and religious enemies, with their dreams of looting the cities and abducting middle-class women in the name of God and of tribal freedom. This is precisely what happened to the cities when the mujahideen took them over in 1992, and the city-dwellers were well aware of what was in store for them. This consolidated support for the regime in many of the cities.

Finally, the Soviets and communists had developed a sophisticated strategy of buying off sections of the mujahideen. Only rarely (as in the case of General Dostum) did this involve actually bringing them over to the communist side. 

Far more frequent was a deal whereby in return for Soviet money, individual mujahideen commanders and their men remained publicly at war with the regime, but in fact only pretended to fight, staging only very limited attacks or even mock battles. In a number of areas, a key part of this strategy was deals to share the opium poppy harvest, and guarantee uninterrupted harvesting and transport to mujahideen groups who agreed not seriously to attack the regime. 

By Anatol Lieven

To be continued

The writer has written this article for the Institute for Policy Reforms, a recently established non-partisan and independent think tank. He is a professor at King’s College London. His latest book is Pakistan: A Hard Country (Penguin).

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