US President Donald Trump has long been willing to leave Afghanistan but the US Army is faced with the serious problem of preserving its “esprit de corps.”
Withdrawal could be interpreted as another Vietnam, that is, a defeat of the American army with all the ensuing psychological and international consequences. Trump’s foreign policy is fairly inconsistent and opportunistic. He will simply decide which option is better for his reelection. He may be accused of a lack of patriotism and of neglecting the army’s interests but he could also present himself as a defender of American interests (Why should Americans die in remote Central and South Asia? Why waste so much taxpayer money to support regimes whose policy is far from American values even if they are US puppets?) He could try to associate the US’ most active interference in Afghan domestic affairs with the Democrats (Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton) by saying that the Republicans (George Bush Jr) were merely taking revenge for the 9/11 terrorist attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Probably, Trump will choose an alternative in the middle: withdraw the ground troops, reduce financial support and turn to large-scale air attacks despite huge civilian losses. His voters may even like the videos of these collateral losses as evidence of his tough resolve to uphold national interests.
Talks between US Special Representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban
Zalmay Khalilzad is very familiar with the issues in Afghan, but his task is complicated and not even completely clear. If diplomatic cover is needed for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan (like Vietnam), any negotiator will do; Khalilzad’s talents are not required for this. The Americans basically just abandoned Vietnam, and Afghanistan and the adjacent countries (primarily the Central Asian states and India) have serious apprehensions that this scenario could also happen in Afghanistan.
If Khalilzad has to come to terms with the Taliban for sustainable peace, preserving the achievements of the US operation and international security forces in Afghanistan, he will face substantial obstacles.
First, the Taliban is not exactly willing to come to terms. They want a victory over a force they consider to be foreign occupiers, including the regime in Kabul that they perceive as part of the foreign occupation. Moreover, whenever the Americans start talking about withdrawal, the Taliban enthusiastically sees victory.
Furthermore, the Taliban is a very complicated conglomerate of field units and political movements, though it certainly has a political core to which the Americans are oriented. Most Russian analysts believe this core is run by organizations in Pakistan and is closely linked with the omnipotent Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that supports it. Traditionally, the ISI tries to use Afghan political movements (primarily Pashtun groups because most Pashtuns live in Pakistan and have their own Taliban which is closely linked with the Afghanistan movement) to prevent the formation of a strong government in Kabul, which would make territorial claims against Pakistan (the two countries are divided by the Durand Line established by British colonial authorities, which Pashtuns on both sides of the border consider conditional).
The Pakistani military structures are also interested in using Afghan movements in its confrontations with India and even for creating the groundwork for talks with the US. The Americans will be able to reach some agreements with this part of the Taliban. But to what extent do these political structures really control the field commanders?
The sources for funding field units are often far removed from the Pakistani-based political structures. They control territories and criminal activities (drug trafficking) and receive money from the Middle East (some of which comes from the sources that also fund ISIS). These units are used to fighting and being at liberty, and their ideology is fairly tough on any manifestations of Western and liberal influences. (In the meantime, the US wants the new Afghanistani government to somehow observe international security standards and human rights). There are serious concerns that if the political wing of the Taliban signs a reconciliation agreement, splinter groups will form and many of its combat units will join ISIS.
As for the official authorities in Afghanistan, they are continuously afraid of being left to their own devices like the Kremlin did during the Soviet Union’s disintegration. The level of demoralization and desertion among Kabul-controlled troops is very high, and the development of the negotiating process only further escalates this fear. Talks could also increase tension between the Pashtuns and the Afghan ethnic minorities (primarily the Tajiks). Tajiks linked with the Northern Alliance at one time, initially formed the backbone of the Afghan army (primarily its officers’ corps). They are worried that the agreement will be inter-Pashtun (that is, the Pashtuns in the Kabul government will strike a deal with Pashtuns from the Taliban with US and Pakistani aid, whereas the Tajiks and other minorities will bear the brunt of the loss. In this case the Northern Alliance is most likely to make a comeback. In general, under any scenarios, the war in Afghanistan will continue but without US participation if the Americans leave it altogether. Indicatively, fairly radical forces will win this war (they would seize a considerable part of the territory).
Consequences of US withdrawal from Afghanistan for the region’s countries and for Russia
Various scenarios are possible but all of them depend on how the US leaves Afghanistan. The most positive scenario is that the situation for Afghanistan’s neighbors will not deteriorate. One scenario suggests that the Americans will withdraw their troops but will continue to render large military and financial aid to the government in Kabul, as Mikhail Gorbachev did initially. In this case the Kabul government could continue to function and keep the major cities, although it would continuously lose control over rural areas and small towns. The threat to neighboring countries would grow. A disastrous scenario could lead to serious destabilization in the neighboring countries that are getting by with “fragile” statehood (primarily in Central Asia). It is also possible that ISIS could transfer its activities to Afghanistan and that al-Qaeda would become markedly more active there.
Officially, Russia is interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan, mainly through cooperation between the states in the region (Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran). I think that unofficially, any resolution to the Afghanistan problem would suit Moscow if it guarantees the security of the Central Asian countries (protected by Moscow via the CSTO) and Russia itself. The main threats to Russia from Afghanistan include terrorist activities (we have already forgotten about the training of Chechen terrorists there before the US operation, but this could happen again), potential destabilization in Central Asia (which could cause refugee flows to Russia), and drug trafficking.