President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year foreshadows a surge of violence in the country that could put pressure on America’s rivals and foes in the region if Taliban forces try to execute a military takeover.
Biden announced the withdrawal timeline just weeks before an expected Afghanistan-themed summit in Turkey, which will host Taliban and Kabul government officials in an attempt to broker a peaceful settlement. The confirmed departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan will be welcomed in a sense by Russia, China, and Iran — but the expected struggle for control of the country also could damage their interests.
“This is bad for Russia,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin said.
Even Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says a Taliban victory could be troublesome for the region. “An Islamic emirate in Afghanistan is an existential threat to Pakistan and a national security threat to Iran and India,” Zarif told the Raisina Dialogue, a conference on geopolitics hosted by India, in a virtual appearance Friday.
U.S. officials tend not to take Zarif’s foreign policy statements at face value, but the comment dovetails with the analysis offered by other governments and observers.
“They would like the U.S. to leave because they suspect the U.S. presence there gives scope for U.S. actions beyond Afghanistan,” an Indo-Pacific official told the Washington Examiner. “At the same same time, with a premature withdrawal by the U.S. forces, the chances of collapse, the chances of refugee flows, the chances of safe havens for terrorist groups again comes back on, which is what concerns them.”
That dynamic could put Russian President Vladimir Putin in the position of the proverbial dog that caught the car. “Russia tried to play it both ways. … Now, that game is over, and the ironic line of defense which the American presence provided is over,” Rubin said.
Officials and analysts around the world remain uncertain of what will come next. U.S. intelligence officials predict “the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay” in the absence of NATO support, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that the 40,000 Afghan military service members will provide a stout defense.
“They have trained among the best. They are among the best in the region,” the Afghan president said Friday. “As long as this force stays, there is no risk of state collapse.”
Yet, his team concedes that Taliban forces could soon be on the march. “There is also possibility that terrorism fronts are strengthened. … This is something predictable,” Ghani adviser Mohammed Mohaqiq told local media. “If the Taliban agreed on peace, we will be very happy because more violence in Afghanistan needs to be stopped, but if they insist on violence, no one will abandon the ground easily to his rival.”
Afghan fighting capabilities could erode without the aid of American air power and the technical skills of U.S. contractors who maintain the military equipment. “It’s brutally clear that the Afghan forces cannot maintain any critical part of their present military inventory,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Anthony Cordesman observed. “That is a kind of aid that, again, people haven’t paid much attention to, but it’s been absolutely critical.”
That observation aligns with the pessimistic analysis offered by U.S. intelligence and private observers. “The Taliban and al Qaeda are well positioned to make gains rapidly throughout much of the country,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s Thomas Joscelyn said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to necessarily overthrow Kabul tomorrow, but, man, it doesn’t look good.”
And yet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to assure Afghan officials this week that “even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue.”
The details of that partnership remain unclear, but the history suggests it could be consequential: When the Soviet Union withdrew military forces from Afghanistan in 1989, the Moscow-backed president, Mohammed Najibullah, managed to remain in power — but only until 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted “the sudden and complete loss of financial assistance” from Moscow, as U.S. Army Major Wesley Spear noted in a 2014 paper.
“So long as we are providing money, I would imagine that the Afghan military and the Afghan government will control major cities, and it will be having problems in the countryside,” said Rubin, the AEI analyst. “The countryside is going to come to the major cities, when the Afghans can no longer pay salaries for their fighters.”
That prospect of a bloody “stalemate” could motivate Russia, Iran, and China to use their leverage over the Taliban, according to a foreign government official. “A coordinated approach will be required from the neighbors to be able to convince the Taliban not to try for a military victory,” the Indo-Pacific official said. “Now how much success, how much they will use the leverage, is a matter of speculation, but it would be required.”
Joscelyn, who has monitored the conflict as the editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, doubts those nations will make such an effort. “They haven’t done much of anything to stop the jihadi advances now since 2001,” he said. “I get the argument for getting out [of Afghanistan], of course. I don’t get the argument, at all, that magically this is going to solve itself through some sort of balance of power between regional actors.”