President Biden recently announced that by September of 2021, the US will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. To assess the potential implications of this decision on the region, Wikistrat spoke with Mr. Shaf Zafeer, a political and security consultant for Afghanistan at NATO.
Wikistrat: Following US President Biden’s announcement regarding the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by the end of September ‘21, how do you think this will affect the peace talks with Afghanistan? The future of the talks? And the dynamics between the different actors who will gain more power? Which actors will lose power?
Zafeer: Well, I don’t think there are going to be any fundamental changes. To date, very little progress has been made in peace talks in Doha with the US ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban, signed in early 2020, not helping as it has removed quite a lot of the ‘top pressure’ off the Taliban to meaningfully commit to peace talks. Also, under normal circumstances, when a state engages in peace talks with its adversary - the non-state actor - the former will naturally have the monopoly on power, will control most of the country, and also have significant international support pressuring the non-state actor to engage in peace talks.
In Afghanistan, it appears to be the other way around. The Taliban are stronger than the Afghan government in military terms, control more territory, albeit rural, with no significant international pressure on them to make concessions for a political settlement. So the Afghan government is caught up between a rock and a hard place as the commitment of the international community to Afghanistan slowly starts to erode away.
The Afghan government is caught up between a rock and a hard place as the commitment of the international community to Afghanistan slowly starts to erode away.
If you analyze the peace talks in Doha, the Taliban and the Afghan government have failed to show any real intention to engage in meaningful dialogue to reach a political agreement. They both calculated that if they held out and the talks either led to a deadlock or collapsed altogether, then that failure would better serve their purpose over compromising and creating a unity government
The Taliban has always maintained that it will not share power, and prolonging the talks past 1 May 2021, which is the date of all US combat troops out of Afghanistan as per the Doha Agreement, would put them in a better place to take control of the country through military action as the departing US and NATO troops would leave Afghan security forces thinly spread across the country. The Doha Agreement only stipulates that US withdrawal is contingent on the Taliban committing to peace talks and not a comprehensive peace agreement.
For the Afghan government, and President Ghani particularly, he calculated, and in hindsight mistakenly, that US and NATO troops would not leave Afghanistan until a peace agreement had been signed because of the resistance they would otherwise face from their political capitals that a 20-year military conquest hadn’t changed anything. He is also aware that the Taliban will not share power so he consistently set out an uncompromising position.
Additionally, we’ve seen him undercut his own team of government negotiators led by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah at the High Council for National Reconciliation by attempting to create a parallel structure of decision-making through his Vice-President or his Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Now that President Biden has confirmed that US troops will leave Afghanistan in September and NATO troops will follow, there is a renewed effort to make some sort of progress at the hastily arranged Istanbul Conference which has yet to begin. What is quite interesting is that in announcing the conference, the US made it clear that Ghani has no role in a future Afghanistan.
The proposal put forward calls for an interim government without Ghani, an agreement on a constitution followed by presidential elections 6 months after. Ghani, realizing that the clock is ticking on his tenure has put forward an alternative proposal in the hope that he can cling on to power.
He proposed another discussion on a political map, followed by an internationally monitored ceasefire and eventually presidential elections. His proposal very much mirrors the peace talks in Doha where over 10 months of attempted mediation, the Taliban and the Afghan government have yet to agree on a political map. So if they won’t agree on a political map in Doha, they are unlikely to agree on a political map in Istanbul. So you have Ghani who is disinterested in peace talks but using them to cling onto power, and the Taliban who are using the talks to pass time while the US departs, after which they will start their military takeover. And the irony is that we have accepted that this is the Taliban’s end-game.
You have Ghani who is disinterested in peace talks but using them to cling onto power, and the Taliban who are using the talks to pass time while the US departs, after which they will start their military takeover. And the irony is that we have accepted that this is the Taliban’s end-game.
Wikistrat: Pakistan kept on using the card of its connections with the Taliban in front of the US during the Peace talks with Afghanistan to show the US the role that it can play. Where does this decision leave Pakistan?
Zafeer: The US relationship with Pakistan during the Trump years wasn’t great and it has not started well under Biden, although it is still early days; however, the US initially snubbing Pakistan’s participation in this year's Climate Conference was a subtle indicator of how the US sees its relationship with Pakistan. Despite the frostiness, the US does look towards Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s stability. Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan is well documented.
Kabul, with a degree of justification, has often accused Islamabad of undermining efforts to stabilize Afghanistan because of its support for the Taliban. However, some nuance is required as the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan is quite complicated which I will return to later. Prime Minister Imran Khan has advocated for greater ties with Afghanistan and has called on the Taliban to be part of the political solution.
His pro-dialogue approach has led to some improvement in relations. The countries have formed good social and economic ties and Pakistan realizes that with the devastating health and economic impact from Covid-19, a stable Afghanistan is required as it can’t continue to bear the cost of taking in a large number of Afghans crossing over its border because of the conflict and now Covid. This influx also undermines Pakistan’s efforts at controlling the spread of the virus and its ability to control social dissent as local resources are strained due to a lack of availability and a poor economy.
Therefore, Pakistan is more than aware that a continuous quagmire in Afghanistan will only exacerbate its own problems which extend to security too as it faces threats from both the Pakistani Taliban and ISIS KP. Another issue Pakistan has to contend with is India’s growing influence in Afghanistan which Pakistan can only counter politically by playing a progressive role in Afghanistan. India has formed close trading ties with Kabul and has invested heavily in key sectors of the economy, which Pakistan can not compete with.
Returning to Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban, it has to be made clear that the Taliban is not a proxy of Pakistan and therefore Pakistan does not have the kind of influence that some analysts often claim. Although Imran Khan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan is to commit to a political sharing of power, he needs the support of the country’s military and intelligence establishment - the ISI - who have often seen Afghanistan through the spectrum of emerging security threats for Pakistan.
As Afghanistan’s relationship with India continues to grow, the security complex in Pakistan see this as a security threat rather than an economic or political challenge, therefore uses its leverage over some elements of the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan further - a strategy designed to force Kabul to pick between Islamabad or Delhi. But there is a big question mark over how much influence Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency has over the Taliban.
Let’s be clear, the Taliban is not homogenous and consists of many heterogeneous elements who often compete against each other for resources such as money and weapons. Pakistan has formed a transactional relationship with some elements of the Taliban including the Haqqani Network under Sirajuddin Haqqani in Eastern Afghanistan, and we’ve seen them enabling the Haqqanis to conduct bombing attacks to undermine the Afghan government.
At the same time, these Pakistani elements within its security establishments are also part of the vast lucrative smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to international markets, which thrives in insecure environments, so they have a personal interest in Afghanistan’s insecurity.
Pakistan also likes to boast that the Taliban leadership residing in Quetta, Pakistan, gives it leverage over the group, but the degree of its leverage is also unclear. We know that the Taliban leadership is distrustful of Pakistan, including but not limited to Pakistan’s involvement in the assassination of its previous leader Mullah Mansour.
This distrust also explains why some Taliban leaders including some of their big fighting units in Kandahar and Helmand in the South, and Farah and Herat in the West have stronger ties to elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. My assessment is that once the US completes its departure from Afghanistan, you will see a growing Iranian encroachment in Afghanistan which Pakistan will be forced to counter.
My assessment is that once the US completes its departure from Afghanistan, you will see a growing Iranian encroachment in Afghanistan which Pakistan will be forced to counter.
Wikistrat: How will this event of the US withdrawal impact the regional dynamics between India, Pakistan, China, and any other relevant regional players that you might have in mind?
Zafeer: So, it was quite surprising that the initial announcement on US troop withdrawal did not mention any capability for counter-terrorism (CT) operations nor talked about how they will monitor regional influences and what options if any they have to counter this. I suspect with the former, the US will maintain some CT capability through bases in Tajikistan, but once all US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, it creates a vacuum for other states to fill. Despite the US withdrawal indicating that Afghanistan is no longer a priority, the country is still geopolitically important especially now that the US considers China as being the next big threat.
The US will maintain some counter-terrorism capability through bases in Tajikistan, but once all US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, it creates a vacuum for other states to fill.
China will definitely look to further cement itself in Afghanistan’s affairs. Economically, Afghanistan lies within China’s Belt and Road Initiative and China has over the years invested heavily in resource mining in Afghanistan. China is also Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor which has enabled it to nurture good ties with both the Taliban and the Afghan government, who it needs on its side if it is going to develop Afghanistan’s infrastructure, mineral, and precious metal sectors. Additionally, China is likely to compete with India for economic dominance, especially when international development aid starts pouring in.
India, though is disadvantaged as it doesn’t have much of a relationship with the Taliban due to its past support of the Soviet Invasion and later the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. From a security perspective, China also sees the threat from violent extremist groups as possibly encouraging unrest amongst the ethnic Uyghur communities in Xinjiang Province, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan. Therefore, it is likely that China will have a CT interest in the country and a CT presence along the Afghan/China border.
We know that Iran, sharing a pretty big border with Afghanistan will be looking at extremist threats emerging in proximity to its Eastern border. Historically, the Iranians and the Taliban haven’t had a great relationship, but relations improved when ISIS-KP emerged in Western Afghanistan in 2014 and got close to the Iranian border. This resulted in the Iranians providing the Taliban with resources to defeat this threat and this type of support has continued since.
Although the threat from extremists is very low right now, the multidimensional dynamics of the Afghan conflict could very easily and quickly result in the rise of violent extremist groups posing a significant problem to Iran. Iran will also look to extend its support to the Hazara population, especially those residing further East in Afghanistan as a way of expanding its influence in Shia populated areas further afield. Economically, Afghanistan offers Iran plentiful opportunities to smuggle fuel into Afghanistan and if US economic sanctions in place due to disagreement over Iranian nuclear compliance remain, Iran is likely to extend its fuel smuggling business.
Russia maintains a very low profile in Afghanistan but I assess it will look to fill the diplomatic void when the US departs. Russia is likely to apply its diplomatic 101 playbook where it creates a parallel diplomatic structure as an alternative to the current failing ventures.
Afghanistan also offers Iran opportunities to acquire much-needed foreign currency. Diplomatically, Iran supports a political solution to the conflict but will continue to develop ties with Taliban groups in Western and Southern Afghanistan in order to maintain its long-term security and economic interests, especially if it is unable to have much sway over Kabul. Over the years, low-cost Iranian support to the Taliban has yielded significant benefits which Iran will strive hard to maintain.
And finally, Russia maintains a very low profile in Afghanistan but I assess it will look to fill the diplomatic void when the US departs. Russia is likely to apply its diplomatic 101 playbook where it creates a parallel diplomatic structure as an alternative to the current failing ventures. Something along the lines of the ‘Astana Process’. They have already held a conference in Moscow and I’m certain that if the Doha talks remain deadlocked and the Istanbul Conference fails to reinvigorate the peace process, Russia will attempt to step in with a plan as a challenge to US diplomatic standing in the world. However, as this is Afghanistan, it is unlikely to work, but nevertheless, it will give Russia the opportunity to once again manufacture a victory for its peacemaking propaganda.
Mr. Shaf Zafeer is an intelligence community professional with more than 5 years’ political and military all-source analytic expertise directly supporting NATO, Resolute Support in Afghanistan, and the United States military and civilian command. He directly worked on NATO’s crisis response to Syria, Iraq, and Libya; advised NATO political leadership on Afghan peace talks; and helped develop EU external relations policy.