Tailoring Expectations: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Scenarios in Afghanistan
From the very beginning the Afghan war has been about expectations management – why is the US there and what does it intend to achieve and what is the end state and a theory of victory? Nobody expected the United States and its NATO allies to turn Afghanistan into another Switzerland nor did the Afghans and international community foresee the prevailing political deadlock and military stalemate. Increasingly - the Afghan war has become a war of dignity for the US army and its NATO allies. A defeat in the hands of a few AK47 wielding ragtag force calling themselves, the Taliban, with safe havens across the border in Pakistan will only refresh the memories of Vietnam in the Pentagon and the broader security establishment in the United States. United States and its NATO allies cannot afford the stain of another Vietnam on their track record especially so when their Russian counterparts, albeit with questionable military tactics, are winning the war in Syria against a more complex enemy. Though, every liberating army becomes an occupation force after a short period of time in the eyes of local population especially in Afghanistan, if it does not deliver a bare minimum, on its originally stated mission objectives. The problem has been that the US and NATO forces kept jumping from one mission statement to another, from one NATO summit to another, promising consolidation of gains and defeating the Taliban and their terrorist allies to no avail. Every US four star General when assuming charge of the multinational forces in Afghanistan called for a mission review, tweaked a few things, presented a report to US Department of Defense asked for more resources and political support, assured NATO allies in various NATO forums of success around the corner but went out of the door leaving a more unstable Afghanistan behind. Here we are eighteen years later with a resurgent Taliban and US/NATO achievements not only not consolidated but more fragile than ever and the Afghan state weaker with an unusual President in the White House, a growing war fatigue in the west and a divided Washington over the fate of its military engagement in the country.
It is in this context that the United States, Afghans and the region need to pause and think long and hard over their choices in Afghanistan and the potential consequences of those options for their security and geopolitical interests in the country and beyond. An unstable Afghanistan will have profound security and geopolitical consequences for its neighbors in the first-degree order effect and subsequently security implications to western security. Surprisingly, it is the Afghan neighbors chief among them Pakistan, Iran and Russian Federation who over geopolitical differences with the United States are using Taliban as a proxy force to destabilize the country to give a bloody nose in the Afghan arena to US and its allies – literally using it as a geopolitical chokepoint against the west and their stabilization project in Afghanistan. This might serve the geopolitical interests of Iran and Russia in the short run but a serious threat to the security of these countries in the absence of US troops doing the dirty laundry in Afghanistan, which indirectly served the security interests of these countries. At that point, it will the Pakistanis, Iranians and Russians who will have to roll up their sleeves and directly get involved in Afghanistan in order to secure their territories from the threat of terrorism and safeguard their political interests in the country. In fact, former President Trump chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was a staunch advocate of US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan because he believed an unstable and violent Afghanistan will serve US security interests because it will threaten the security of China, Russia and Iran under which circumstances these countries would have to deepen their engagement in Afghanistan and channel resources to stabilize Afghanistan for the sake of their own security instead of US doing their dirty security laundry. Under the current circumstances such a scenario is not far and is very much conceivable with President Trump in the White House.
In such circumstances and in a world full of uncertainties and geopolitical flashpoints, Afghans – the region – US and its NATO partners need to move from a narrative of success to a narrative of compromise whereas the interests of all sides are served through a cooperative approach for achieving a stable Afghanistan with the accommodation of Taliban which is not at war with itself and is not a threat to regional and global security. The western infatuations with military victory and regional narrative of using Afghanistan as a geopolitical chokepoint for the United States might in the short run serve the interests of one side or the other but in the long run will work against the security interests of all sides.
The outcome of the Afghan war will pretty much depend on the behavior of its sponsors and proxies. The Afghan war can subside, intensify, change nature or get contained to particular localities within the country depending on political farsightedness and military objectives of the stakeholders of this war. In between all this – it will be the Afghan people who will lose most in terms of life, treasure and infrastructure. To turn this situation into a win-win strategy for all, all parties need to fundamentally recalculate their strategies and move towards a cooperative win-win strategy for all sides. There is potential for US-Russian, US-Iran and US-Pakistani cooperation to address a credible geopolitical challenge, which could pose tangible threats to the national security of all these countries.
While nobody holds a crystal ball to predict the future course of events in Afghanistan given that President Trump has deep reservations about US engagement in the country, a resurgent Taliban, increasing great game politics in this periphery state and an exhausted Afghan population who question the presence of foreign forces in the country in the absence of security in the country but one can safely assume that broadly three plausible scenarios are foreseen on the future of Afghan government, US engagement in the country and the developments in the country – the good, the bad and the ugly – each of which will entail its costs and benefits to all parties of the Afghan war.
Scenario # 1 – The Good: A Negotiated Settlement
THE ideal scenario and a win-win option for all parties to the Afghan conflict will be a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, brokered by US, China and Russia but guaranteed by Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There are numerous blueprints and roadmaps floating around for such a peace settlement which takes into account the interests and demands of both the Taliban and the Afghan Government while ensuring that the security concerns of the US and its NATO allies are addressed, and interests of the region are taken into account as well. In such a scenario, the shape, form and nature of the Afghan constitution and Government will be negotiated with the Taliban and a grand Jirga together with a high ulema council will give its blessing to the new constitution and formation of the government. On the other hand, Taliban will be asked to break ties with regional and global terrorist groups and take action against the foreign fighters who are fighting in the ranks of the Taliban and subsequently disarm, demobilize its fighters and reintegrate its fighters within the Afghan national security forces. Such a scenario will be a win-win scenario for all internal and external players of the Afghan conflict. Therefore, all parties should strive to ensure such an end state is achieved for the sake of everyone’s long term geopolitical and security interests.
Scenario # 2 – The Bad: US Withdrawal and an Afghan Government left on Borrowed Time
IF President Trump goes against military advice, betrays Afghan allies like the Kurds in Syria, accepts the responsibility to be the president who put the stain of another Vietnam on the conscience of the American military and uses this card to win favor with the American electorate to win a second term then such a scenario will take place. The US might announce a timetable for withdrawal, continue its financial support to the Government in Kabul and push the region through diplomatic channel to clean up its Afghan mess or subcontract the Afghan problem to one or multiple Afghan neighbors in exchange for military and political favors. In such a scenario, essentially the United States will pull out its military personnel, which automatically entails the withdrawal of NATO forces and put the Afghan government on life support. This will embolden Taliban and international terrorist groups of beating the world’s greatest military power in Afghanistan and weaken the government in Kabul, which could lead to its disintegration and eventual fall.
Scenario # 3 – The Ugly: Civil War and a Full-Fledged Proxy War
THE worst case scenario is that the United States declares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and cuts or redirects its financial resources from the Afghan security forces and the Government in Kabul to another part of the world OR the US goes to some sort of conflict like situation with China, Russia or Iran and just like the Iraq war diverts its much needed resources towards a new military and security priority. In such a case, the Afghan government will collapse, Afghan security forces will divide along ethnic lines, each of the Afghan neighbor will vie for influence and to secure their security interests in the country which will push the country into a full fledged civil war and proxy wars of its neighbors. This is a recipe for disaster and a scenario that needs to be avoided at any cost. Such a descent into chaos scenario will inflict harm and threaten the security interests of the region and beyond and will have no winner.
At the end of the day, the country Afghanistan belong to Afghans and nobody expects the United States and its NATO allies to remain forever in the country but the least the region and US can leave as a legacy to the Afghan people is a stable government, a professional and well equipped Afghan security forces who can both secure Afghanistan and serve as the first line of defense to the region and the west against terror group who want to inflict harm to them.