July 16, 2021   6 mins

Would the Americans have left Afghanistan so precipitously had they known what was about to happen? Over one quarter of Afghan districts have fallen from government control. Local warlords are raising militias to protect their own criminal and narcotic interests — many of them the very same actors who created the chaos of the civil war in the 1990s (or their sons), and war criminals to a man. Meanwhile the Afghan military is unable to supply many of its troops.

The speed of developments has been dizzying, and is forcing neighbouring countries and international organisations to plan on the hoof. Many have opted to close their embassies and consulates, and evacuate their staff. The UN is pulling out most of its internationals — the UNDP, for example, is down to a handful in the country. Multiple border crossings — with Tajikistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and (on Wednesday) with Pakistan — have fallen to Taliban control, blocking customs revenue which is practically the only source of government income except for international aid.

The Taliban, a highly decentralised franchise-style operation, but with an excellent social media team, have been broadcasting videos of Talibs repairing roads in Kandahar, treating captured government soldiers well, and ogling vast mounds of captured American-sourced rifles and ammunition. The most poignant videos are of young Talibs enjoying swings and slides in children’s playgrounds, perhaps savouring for the first time the childhoods they never had.

But nobody is fooled: this week a gruesome video surfaced showing Taliban militants executing surrendering Afghan government soldiers. The veracity of this content was denied by the Taliban but confirmed by CNN. It’s clear that the advance of the Taliban is a complete disaster for the young, educated, progressive generation, who are used to the internet, and music, and mixing between the sexes — to normal life, in other words. And it’s doubly worse for the women, who, under Taliban rule, would be unable to, among other things, leave the house without a male relative .

Many of this generation are making increasingly desperate attempts to flee the country. The US has made belated efforts to accelerate the relevant visa programme and get them out of the country, but it is bittersweet for many Afghans: they feel utterly betrayed by the United States and its allies. Meanwhile the Taliban leadership, based in Qatar, have been touring the neighbouring countries, meeting with government officials, acting like a government in waiting.

But what has happened is government weakness, rather than Taliban strength. Many of the districts that have recently ‘fallen’ were remote districts, difficult to supply, and only possible to maintain with western air support. In June, the Defence Ministry decided to retrench from many of these areas in order to concentrate on strategic defendable areas (a retrenchment the Americans had been encouraging the Afghan government to make for over a year). Now, the government still controls the cities, and has an air force, which the US has stated they will continue to support (with spares, contractors, and repair facilities in other countries). The US will also continue channelling massive amounts of financial aid into the Afghan government. After the USSR pulled out of the nation in 1989, the Afghan government managed to survive with Soviet funding — until 1992, when that funding dried up. And it will probably survive now, at least in the medium term.

The deluge of videos and reports ricocheting around social media shows that the Taliban is a fractured movement. Local aid workers and contractors report that they are being taxed by the “Taliban” to continue their projects in an area, and then the next day being taxed by other “Taliban”. Some government prisoners are allowed to go home, others are executed where they stand. In some areas locals are left alone, in others they are being whipped for minor infringements. At a local level, many Talibs are fighting for individual, rather than “national” reasons.

At a higher level, there appears to be an internal argument within the Taliban between the political and military strands of the movement. The political leadership, conscious that Afghanistan will need international aid on an ongoing basis, seem to be pursuing negotiations in order to become a legitimate government recognised by the global community. The military side, flush with their recent advances, are convinced they can take over Afghanistan by force, much like they did in the 1990s.

It’s also not clear to what extent different factions within the Taliban are working together, or will work together if they get closer to government. A range of groups with very different interests united against American occupation — now that it’s over, they’re likely to fall on each other. This is especially true when you consider that the Taliban political leadership just announced that they will ban opium production and trafficking if they get into power — many factions, like the Mansur drug networks, depend on the trade.

The most likely scenario, then, is a stalemate, with the government controlling the cities and most of the ring road, and eventually regaining control of their border posts, which the Taliban don’t appear to know how to operate anyway. Any negotiations between the Taliban political leadership and the government are unlikely to be successful. There are just too many sticking points, like women’s rights; neither the Taliban nor the government can concede enough while maintaining the support — from the military wing of the Taliban and the Kabul progressives, respectively.

But it’s not just Afghan politics that’ll shape the aftermath of America’s withdrawal. Geopolitics abhors a vacuum. All eyes are on China, a nation with huge interests in Afghanistan — centred around minerals, counter terrorism, and connectivity via its Belt and Road Initiative. Like every other surrounding power, it has hedged: its offer of development funds to rebuild infrastructure has been made to both the Taliban and the Kabul government. In return the Taliban leadership have declared the Uighurs an “internal affair” for China — an astonishing about-face for a movement that hosted Uighur separatists in the 1990s and 2000s. Given some factions are distinctly pro-Uighur, this declaration may well make it even more difficult for the Taliban to hold together.

Until recently, China outsourced a lot of its Afghanistan policy to its ally Pakistan, but this might be about to change. Pakistan’s actions in supporting the military wing of the Taliban are seriously increasing the chance of a civil war. Completely missing from most media — as they breathlessly chart the advance of the Taliban —are multiple credible reports of Pakistanis fighting against Afghan government forces. Meanwhile, Talibs wounded or killed in Afghanistan are being taken back to Pakistan for treatment or burial — something even admitted by the Pakistani Interior Minister in late June. But Pakistan’s government has realised (not for the first time) that it doesn’t control its proxies in Afghanistan. It will likely come under increasing pressure from China to do just that. Bizarrely, the US did little to reduce Pakistani influence over the years, preferring instead to fund the Afghan government, at the same time as funding the Pakistani government, who were funding the Taliban, who were fighting the Afghan government and NATO. No wonder Afghans are disgusted with the US.

Pakistan’s ideal scenario is a negotiated settlement leading to a friendly Taliban government in Kabul — a deeply worrying prospect to Pakistan’s old nemesis India, which has a long-standing and deep relationship with the Afghan government. India has reached out to the Taliban leadership, unsuccessfully, and is now actively considering training Afghan troops, as well as other means of supporting the government military effort. Afghanistan to India is, of course, a way to challenge Pakistan’s regional foreign policy.

Afghanistan is, then, an arena in which conflicts between multiple nations are playing out. There’s also jostling between China and Russia. The latter doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan but its proxy, Tajikistan, does. A couple of weeks ago, over 1000 Afghan soldiers fled to the neighbouring nation, raising concerns that the conflict would spill over. Memories of Tajikistan’s own civil war, in the 1990s, are still raw. Russian troops in Tajikistan are considering deploying to the border to help seal it, with the very highest levels of the two militaries in discussion. In the last decade, China has been steadily usurping Russia’s traditional influence in the Central Asian states; it’s not clear how a Russia military deployment so close to China would be viewed in Beijing.

Plenty of other countries have skin in the game, too. For instance, Iran’s traditional proxies in Afghanistan — the Shia Hazara — have among the most to lose to a Taliban takeover, because the Sunni Taliban view the Shia as basically non-Muslims. It is inconceivable that Iran would leave them hanging — particularly after many Hazara recently fought in Iranian-organised brigades in the Syrian conflict. They’ll support and further arm the Hazaras as the conflict progresses, pouring yet more weaponry into a country where the price of a Kalashnikov is already among the cheapest in the world.

In the midst of all this, there’s a distinct lack of global power-broking. The one organisation that could provide a framework for regional political discussions, the UN, is largely absent, not being the fastest moving bureaucracy. And so, everyone is stuck: assessing the situation, hedging their bets, and waiting. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is clinging on for dear life. It’s likely to survive, but there’s a distinct possibility it will collapse and Afghanistan will fragment, with some areas going to various parts of the Taliban franchise, some areas going to local warlords, and at best a rump Kabul government remaining. At this point, the nation would be a free-for-all, with outside powers diving in to protect their interests and support their proxies in the hope that they can gain ascendancy — or just survive. And this chaos would be the worst of all possible outcomes, for everyone, but above all, for the Afghans.

Mike Martin is a former British army officer and War Studies Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. His latest book is Why We Fight.