The United States has made clear that it will withdraw from Afghanistan by early September, as per the terms of a deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban under President Donald Trump in February 2020. In the sixteen months between then and now, the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies have made steady gains all across the country, including alarmingly rapid progress toward provincial capitals and Kabul itself in the last few weeks, and in the background the Islamic State (ISIS) is strengthening. Added to this is interference from multiple foreign states. There are efforts to try to arrest the descend into chaos and worse, but at this late stage it is open to question if anyone can prevent a complete collapse of the government, probably in rather short order after the U.S. and NATO leave.
The Taliban pushed into two provincial capitals, Kunduz and Maimana, on June 20, and though the jihadists soon pulled back and dispersed into the population, they conquered a dozen districts in the same twenty-four hour period, adding to the fifty taken in the six prior weeks. Entire units of the Afghan army have been negotiating surrenders of their bases and weapons, and then either going home, having promised the Taliban they will not rejoin the fight to save the republic, or defecting to the jihadists’ side. In the most recent developments, the border with Tajikistan has been taken over by the Taliban.
These developments led to a reshuffle in the Afghan Cabinet as the government in Kabul panics. This panic is not unreasonable: the loss of state control in the south has been happening for some time, but the recent collapse of government authority is in the north of the country, not historically considered the heartland of the Taliban. For the jihadists to be making inroads this serious in those areas, it suggests a positive feedback loop is in place that will unravel the Afghan government, sooner rather than later.
Despite a messaging campaign for several years, from Kabul and the NATO powers, downplaying if not scorning the threat from the Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” (ISKP), the group had not been destroyed. On the contrary, ISKP’s disappearance from public view was a strategic decision that the group itself took, simultaneous with the decision of ISIS at the “centre” in Syria and Iraq, to avoid holding territory, to embed in local areas, to infiltrate the prison systems, and to wait for their moment to come around again, as it did in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal there.
Then there is the international dimension. Even as the U.S. withdraws, it is part of the “expanded troika” with Russia and China (plus Pakistan and, theoretically, Iran), which supposedly aspires to a role in maintaining stability and security, on terrorism, of course, but also other issues like drug trafficking. The actual will of the U.S. to stay engaged is very much in doubt, but Russia, China, and Iran are certainly manoeuvring to create facts on the ground. There is then the wildcard of Turkey, which does not have the extensive influence of the others, yet aspires to hold key pieces of critical infrastructure after NATO departs.
How these states will act—in cooperation with each other, in competition, and above all against the West—remains to be seen, but it is far likelier that they, and not the U.S., will determine the post-withdrawal outcome in Afghanistan than the U.S., even if the U.S. sticks to its promises of diplomatic engagement and financial donations to the Afghan government.
One foreign state that has tried to make a more constructive contribution is Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Conference on the Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan concluded on June 10 in Mecca, having been convened by the Muslim World League (MWL) under the auspices of the Saudi government. The Conference, which gathered together important officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan, plus twenty leading ulema (Islamic scholars) from both countries, worked over five sessions on issues of peace, tolerance, and reconciliation for Afghanistan, and concluded that there was no justification for continuing the war.
The MWL secretary-general Muhamad bin Abd al-Karim al-Issa summarized the intent during the signing ceremony of the final communique: to find a political settlement in Afghanistan that brings together the various warring parties, and has them set aside their ethnic, regional, social, and economic differences, finding unity in their religion. Mujadadi, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, thanked Saudi Arabia and the MWL for their efforts.
There was an important section in the final declaration at the Conference, which condemned suicide bombing as a violation of Islam’s principles and doctrines. This is important because some highly influential ulema, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, based in Qatar, have promoted the idea that suicide attacks are Islamically permissible, and this notion has spread far and wide, with disastrous consequences for all the world, though disproportionately afflicting Muslims. As many authority figures as possible, religious and political, need to actively preach against such extremist notions to push them back to the fringes.
MWL’s contribution to the ideological war against extremism is welcome, but it seems unlikely the Conference can now arrest Afghanistan’s descent into chaos.
Afghanistan, in a near-continuous state of war since the Communist coup in 1978 and the Soviet invasion a year later, is now unravelling very quickly as NATO leaves, with jihadists of all stripes on the march. The U.S.-Taliban deal was supposed to bring peace, but it miscalculated: while the U.S./NATO and the Taliban more-or-less ceased offensive operations against each other, this simply alleviated the pressure on the Taliban and allowed them to focus their full firepower against the Afghan government. The U.S. was so determined to leave, it refused to intervene to prevent these advances by the Taliban.
The Saudi initiative has the right idea—to find enough reconcilable elements of Afghanistan’s fragmented landscape so the state and society can find a centre to hold—but, unfortunately, all indicators are that dynamics have evolved to a point on the ground that the relevant actors in Afghanistan, just as in the 1990s, see more advantage in the demise of the current government than in finding a way to buttress it against another jihadist takeover.