Afghanistan is teetering on the brink. Early this week, the Taliban escalated its military offensive across large swaths of the country. Taliban fighters assaulted major cities and launched rocket attacks at the airports in Herat and Kandahar, and captured the provincial capital of Nimruz in southwestern Afghanistan. The Taliban also controls districts in Helmand province and is threatening to capture the provincial capital. Long War Journal estimates that 223 Afghan districts are now under Taliban control, 113 are contested, and 73 are under government control. Taliban militants also control border crossings with Tajikistan and Iran.
Previous Taliban attacks took place in the rural areas, towns, and smaller cities that were already contested by militants and tribal leaders. Taliban attacks on Herat and Kandahar threaten to displace millions of Afghan civilians. 2,000 Afghans are entering Turkey everyday and thousands more are requesting visas to leave the country for fear of reprisals for cooperating with American and NATO forces.
President Joe BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE’s unconditional withdrawal is almost complete and the Afghan army that was trained and supplied by the U.S. is collapsing. Demoralized Afghan forces are fleeing to Tajikistan as local leaders negotiate surrender with Taliban militants. The Afghan army is rife with corruption and many soldiers go long periods without pay and are left without basic supplies and cut off from reinforcements.
Despite roughly 2,400 American troops killed and more than $1 trillion in assistance, Afghanistan is more insecure than at any other point. The number of civilian casualties is now at its height and the Afghan economy has not grown in the last decade.
The reality is that America was never going to solve Afghanistan’s political and economic troubles. Moreover, continuing the fight against the Taliban has become detrimental to U.S. foreign policy interests. The U.S. military killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan ten years ago and destroyed the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan. While the initial U.S. military deployment was supported by roughly 90% of the American people, most Americans now support bringing American troops home.
If the Taliban overrun Kabul, then the damage to long-term U.S. global credibility will be far-reaching, much in the same way the Vietnam War harmed America’s global influence. China and Russia will interpret America’s departure as weakness and America’s allies may look at the U.S. military withdrawal as a lack of commitment in their countries and regions.
To stem Talian advances, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tried to negotiate a peace agreement with Taliban leaders. But that may have worked when there were enough U.S. troops in Afghanistan that could pressure the Taliban into accepting a power sharing arrangement. While that was risky, legalizing the Taliban as a political party was only feasible before this most recent upsurge in violence. Now, the Taliban have no reason to negotiate.
The only viable option for the Afghan government is to mobilize localized militias willing to fight the Taliban. That could provide the government some breathing room to reconstitute its forces and mitigate defections within its ranks. But the last time local leaders took up arms, in the 1990s, anarchy ensued, and militias turned against one another along ethnic lines.
The same extrajudicial killings that took place in the 1990s could return and lead to violence spilling over into other countries. Pakistan is watching the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan. The mostly ethnic Pashtun Afghan Taliban could move against Pakistan’s own ethnic Pashtun areas, threatening its territorial sovereignty. Also, Russia has serious security concerns in central Asia. The risk of ethnic violence and the proliferation of the narcotics trade and religious extremism could lead Russia to redouble its commitments. Furthermore, Tajikistan has positioned 20,000 troops along its porous border with Afghanistan. In addition, China fears that the instability in Afghanistan could threaten its Belt and Road initiative and seep into Xinjiang where it has detained up to 1.5 Muslim Uighurs.
None of these regional players want to intervene militarily in Afghanistan. The least bad option may be to consider establishing bilateral ties with the Taliban to stabilize Afghanistan and fill the power vacuum left by the U.S.
While the collapse of the Afghan government is not guaranteed, there is tremendous instability and unpredictability for both Afghanistan and the region. The Taliban does not possess the heavy firepower required for a full-out assault on Kabul. The Taliban may simply consolidate its holdings and wait for the Afghan government to buckle under the pressure or strike a diplomatic deal with China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran. That would be a major loss for the U.S. But do not expect any of these players to step into the graveyard of empires with their militaries anytime soon.
Chris J. Dolan is professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.