Afghanistan: Losers Can’t Be Choosers

Bottom Line Up Front: There are indications that the Taliban have no intention of reaching a compromise and believe they can take over Afghanistan shortly after the US withdrawal. Comparisons with the survival of the Najibullah government may be misleading. An eventual evacuation of the international community should be manageable but would have its hazards.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Cipher Brief Expert, Former Sr. Member, British Foreign Office

Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London. His first overseas posting was to Angola during the Cold War followed by Central America during the instability of the late 1980s. Click here for his full bio.

The Afghan Taliban have no intention of reaching a compromise with the United States, NATO countries or the Afghan government. This was explained to me recently by a South Asian political figure who is close to the Taliban leadership. In response to the argument that a united Afghan government would represent a better outcome than a Pashtun Islamist state, his pithy reply was “Losers can’t be choosers”.

There is also a degree of contempt for some of the channels being used to set up a putative summit in Istanbul. Far from being revered by the Taliban as a beacon of Islamist assertiveness, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is viewed with deep suspicion because of his support to the Uzbek warlord and former Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. Furthermore, the efforts of Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Bajwa to persuade the Taliban to attend Istanbul allegedly risk weakening the Pakistan Army’s future leverage over the Taliban.

The United States is placing great faith in Bajwa’s ability to bring the Taliban to negotiate a deal in Afghanistan but Bajwa is not as free to deliver as Washington may think.  Bajwa’s current power stems from his dominance over a weakened prime minister and his authority over the army. However, he will know that he needs to retain the support of his Corps Commanders and that means not straying too far from those policy areas controlled by the army; namely India, Kashmir and Afghanistan. Afghan policy is to ensure that India cannot gain a foothold in Afghanistan which (the army thinks) is best delivered by supporting a Pashtun Islamist party. Bajwa’s tenure as COAS lasts until November 2022, long enough to make some short-term tactical moves but not long enough to engineer a change of course.

All these factors will encourage the Taliban (who know the internal workings of the Pakistan Army better than most) to play a long game, confident that the Pakistan army will remain steadfast in the longer term. The Taliban may also suspect that Bajwa is playing his mediation role to impress the Americans and that he too will return to normal policy parameters once the last NATO soldier has departed.

According to my sources, the Taliban are convinced they can take Kabul “within days” of the NATO withdrawal and they believe the Afghan army is “in a shambles and demoralised”. Although the Taliban will not disrupt departing US troops (unless attacked) they are not willing to wait until September to continue their campaign against Kabul government forces.

These claims are reminiscent of 1989, following the Soviet withdrawal when the mujahideen reckoned they would topple the government of President Mohamed Najibullah within weeks. In fact, Najibullah survived for 3 years against a range of insurgent groups which had the backing of Pakistan and Gulf states and were still well-equipped with Western weapons supplied over the previous decade. In fact, it was not until the Russians actively undermined Najibullah and stopped his supplies that his government finally collapsed and the mujahideen began its disastrous contest for control of Kabul.

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But we should not take much comfort from the Najibullah example. The comparisons with today’s Afghanistan are misleading. Najibullah’s government was able to reach and supply all the major towns by military convoy. The Afghan army was deployed to protect towns and road communications. By contrast, in 2021, only the route between Kabul and Jalalabad is reasonably safe. Convoys cannot get through from Kabul to Kandahar, Kandahar to Herat, or Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif. The Afghan army is spread across the country in piecemeal district centres (often surrounded by Taliban-controlled countryside) and have to be resupplied by air. This is not a sustainable model.

Furthermore, a number of today’s Afghan leaders, officials and military officers have received offers to relocate to the United States, Germany and elsewhere. As the security situation continues to deteriorate, the gradual trickle of departures is likely to gather pace. In such circumstances, the government could implode quite suddenly. In 1989, few Afghan officials wished to seek sanctuary in the Soviet Union, where the economy was in terminal decline. Today, some Afghans have become relatively prosperous on the back of international largesse over the past 20 years. This provides options for emigration which did not exist in 1989.

It is important that Western countries do not stimulate the collapse of the Afghan government by closing their embassies in Kabul, as Australia has done. Doubtless NATO military planners are working on contingency plans in case an emergency evacuation of the international community will be required. The probability is that such an operation would be successful like the 1928 airlift of foreigners by Royal Air Force aircraft from Kabul to Peshawar. The Taliban may promise protection to diplomatic missions and Pakistan would certainly allow its territory to be used for the rescue of the international community. However, it would be a high-risk operation with a number of challenges such as distance, weather, terrorism, ground-to-air fire and happenstance.

To some, this may evoke images of the 1975 fall of Saigon with the big losers being the Afghans who remain, particularly the women, who face a future of uncertainty and anxiety. There could also be a migration crisis reminiscent of Syria in the last decade.

Hopefully the Taliban’s confidence is misplaced and they fail to make headway against the Afghan army and will eventually come to accept the merits of a negotiated settlement. Such an outcome feels utopian at present and would require more international support than has been visible in recent months.

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