By Jen Kirby
An expert on an unpredictable, uncertain future.
“Is the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable?”
That’s the question a reporter put to President Joe Biden this week at a press conference on the US’s drawdown in Afghanistan.
“No, it is not,” Biden said, noting that Afghan government troops greatly outnumber the Taliban and are “as well-equipped as any army in the world.”
That may be true, but numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. The Taliban has rapidly expanded its territorial control over the last week and is closing in on the capital, Kabul. On Monday, more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers reportedly fled into neighboring Tajikistan to escape a Taliban advance. A US intelligence assessment has said the Afghan government could fall in six months once US and other international troops leave.
It makes it hard to see a Taliban takeover as anything other than extremely likely, if not truly inevitable. For that reason, it’s worth thinking about what it would actually mean if that were to happen. What does that look like? And how should the Biden administration respond?
I spoke with Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and an expert on the region, to talk through some of these questions.
Afzal’s not necessarily convinced that a full Taliban takeover is imminent. “It could happen down the road, but not without some significant fighting,” she told me. But, she said, “The fundamental question facing the Biden administration is, whatever government setup emerges in Afghanistan, will it pose a threat to the US?”
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
I know it’s a very complicated situation on the ground in Afghanistan, but can you give a basic overview of the landscape right now as the US withdraws?
I think many of us feared that with withdrawal, without a peace deal between the Taliban and Kabul, the most likely outcome would be some kind of a civil war. Not necessarily an imminent Taliban takeover, but a civil war that could be a protracted one.
Now, given the losses that Afghan security forces have suffered in the last few days after US forces departed the Bagram Air Base, those rapid losses have led some to believe it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban takes over — and, in fact, that military takeover might be more likely, that the fight will soon move to provincial capitals and cities and the Afghan security forces will have the same kind of losses they’ve faced over the last few days.
But that may not necessarily be the case. It could be that the fight is stronger in Afghan cities, provincial capitals, certainly in Kabul. There’s also the question of what happens if the Taliban gets to Kabul and tries to take over Kabul. Does the US step in in some way? Do NATO forces step in in some way? That’s a question that was raised, at least in some recent reporting.
So I think the most likely outcome is fighting that will soon move to Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a full Taliban takeover is imminent. It could happen down the road, but not without some significant fighting.
As you said, it’s hard to know what will happen. But, from the US perspective, is that the key goal? To keep the central government and Afghan security forces intact? Or do you think the US government is thinking about the strategy differently as it leaves?
That thinking is probably still evolving as the US views what is happening. I think an eventual outcome, if one thinks about it — and this could be down the road — could be a part of Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, and one part of it, perhaps, ruled by a government that is friendlier to the United States.
Would the US step in in some way to avoid Kabul being taken over by the Taliban? I think that’s a question. In all the discussions that the US has been having with Pakistan and other countries trying to establish over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities, we don’t really have a satisfactory answer there, I think because nothing has really been decided.
With all those discussions, to me, the fundamental question facing the Biden administration is, whatever government setup emerges in Afghanistan, will it pose a threat to the US?
Even if it’s complete — let’s go to the extreme — even if it’s a complete Taliban takeover, does it pose a threat to the United States or not? The US doesn’t have to give it aid. The US doesn’t have to give it legitimacy. The US may even sanction it. It has certain tools. But if it exists, like it did in the 1990s, does it give haven to al-Qaeda? Does it allow its soil to be used to attack the United States?
That’s when this government becomes a problem for the United States. So if it’s a small part of Afghanistan, or a significant part of Afghanistan, that is being ruled by a Taliban government, again, the same question arises.
So the question is not so much whether or not the Taliban will take over, but rather in what form, and if it acts like a rogue actor. But if the Taliban doesn’t, say, give safe harbor to terrorists, then the US may not be as concerned, even if that’s an uncomfortable position after 20 years of nation-building.
Exactly. President Biden has been talking about the terrorist threat from Afghanistan being a key concern. He alludes to that repeatedly, saying, basically, “Look, the terrorist threat has morphed, it has gone elsewhere.” So, at least for his administration, the central question around the Taliban’s ascendance would be: What kind of threat does it pose to the US?
This may be an impossible question to answer, but do we have a sense of what the Taliban might do, learning the lessons of 20 years? Perhaps they’re less eager to host terrorists? Or maybe not?
The answer to that is probably a little bit mixed, and maybe not satisfactory because there is a lot we don’t know. The Taliban is good at rhetoric. It’s good at propaganda. What it says is not what actually happens.
We should be very wary when it comes to the Taliban. There’s also a divide between the Taliban political leadership — which seems to know how to use rhetoric and propaganda — versus rural Taliban or foot soldiers who a) believe in the same draconian, regressive forms of governance they did in the 1990s, and b) believe that they’ve won a jihadist victory. And this means you don’t compromise, going back to the way things were in the 1990s.
The Taliban political leadership isn’t fully clear on what it wants in terms of girls’ education, women going to work, and so on. It has just said it’s going to be in line with Islam.
I think we ought to be wary of how much the Taliban has changed. That being said, they seem to enjoy international legitimacy. Now, whether that’s just because they want to use that to make the US get out of Afghanistan and then essentially go back to the ways of the 1990s, that could be.
They’re on a diplomatic tour of sorts, having just gone to Iran. They sometimes visit Pakistan. They’re making relationships with other countries, it seems, and countries beyond those they were in touch with in the 1990s.
So will they want to be a pariah state, isolated as they were in the ’90s? I’m not quite sure about that. They certainly want to fully take over Afghanistan at whatever cost. What they want after that, in terms of their relationship with other countries and their international status, that’s something where people think, “Maybe we can get them to moderate based on their desire for international legitimacy.”
That’s the open question. I am severely skeptical of that.
That makes me think of the US peace deal with the Taliban, brokered under the Trump administration, which seemed to give the Taliban the type of legitimacy it craved. Was that, in retrospect, a turning point for the Taliban? Did that have any influence?
Absolutely. I think the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha gave the Taliban more legitimacy than anything until then. The Taliban has been building on that legitimacy since then. The fact that the Afghan government in Kabul wasn’t even party to that deal, that the US agreed with the Taliban on things that it then got the Afghan government to do, such as the release of prisoners. These are all things that really bolstered the Taliban, whether we like it or not.
And, in some sense, it’s become an actor that is much more confident in itself after that. People talk about Pakistan using its leverage over the Taliban. Well, a lot of other actors now have less leverage over the Taliban to get them to do what they want because the Taliban has been granted this international legitimacy, by the US more than anyone else.
So from a US standpoint, do you try to leverage that? Now that you’ve had these negotiations with the Taliban, do you try to work the gears diplomatically and try to engage?
Sadly, I think an unconditional withdrawal basically makes the peace process redundant. The Taliban has shown that by its military strategy since.
Where our leverage existed was in this little time period that we had between the Doha deal being signed and our final withdrawal. So, to me, our troops — as cynical as that sounds — are where the leverage lay because that’s what the Taliban wanted. It wanted US troops to leave. But it didn’t have to grant the US anything. It didn’t have to do anything to get the troops to leave, so we lost that leverage by the unconditional withdrawal that the president announced in April.
So essentially the US said, “Do those things and we’ll leave.” And then they didn’t and we left anyway, but we still want them to do those things.
Exactly. So you can see how the incentives fall away for the Taliban.
Does the US, do you think, still have to take the lead when it comes to the future of Afghanistan? Or do you think it will shift elsewhere, maybe to NATO or the United Nations?
I think the Biden administration has been trying to say, “Look, regional countries have a responsibility here, and they really need to step up.” Pakistan, Russia, China — obviously Turkey’s important, India. That’s where the Biden administration is pointing the finger. It depends on the outcomes. But I think there’s a serious credibility problem for the US if it just looks away.
President Biden has, in terms of promising assistance, basically said, “This is a new chapter where the partnership is not a military one, but we will be there for you in other ways.” I think the US feels some burden of responsibility and, I think, will not look away entirely — though the Biden administration would probably like to focus on other things.
I think this is an administration that does care about its perception in the world, and does not want to be thought of as abandoning Afghanistan. But whether that in practice has any major effect beyond — not necessarily lip service, but rhetorical support, we’ll have to see.
I’m wondering if there is another way to protect some of the gains in Afghanistan, especially around human rights, but maybe not around the paradigm of a centrally functioning Afghan government. Is there such an approach for the US to take?
The US cannot be the one to sustain a centrally functioning government in Afghanistan. Again, Biden talked about that quite candidly, saying it’s very difficult. So how can those gains be protected? I think the US is banking on — kind of pun intended — assistance: security, financial, economic, humanitarian, all sorts of assistance. And that the Taliban will, militarily, face pushback.
So perhaps it is looking at some outcome where there could be a decentralized framework, where the cities have a different set-up versus the rural areas, and large swaths of the country are ruled by the Taliban.
All of this will really depend on how things go militarily — whether the Afghan security forces are really able to put up a fight in those areas. Because remember that many of the gains we talk about — schools, employment — these were felt and seen in the urban areas and not in the rural areas. So in some sense, the rural areas being taken over by the Taliban may get some measure of stability in whatever form because the fighting stops.
And so what happens to the urban areas? Is there a way for the US to help the Afghans hold onto those gains a little bit longer? There’s a segment of Afghan society that doesn’t want to let those gains go. I also know that many of them are leaving. It’s a very dynamic situation.
So that one is hard to talk about without knowing how things are going to go militarily. There is a bit of a wait-and-see approach because the assistance announced is what it is. Given that and given the fighting power of the Afghan security forces, can they put up a fight?
Do you think there is any scenario where the US would recommit or intervene militarily in Afghanistan to do that?
That’s a big question — the million-dollar question. People have talked about, well, if an ISIS-like situation emerges, as with post-Iraq withdrawal and the rise of ISIS. That’s not what we are necessarily worried about in Afghanistan. I think the terrorism threat that emerges from Afghanistan will not be something we see in the short term. It’s not going to be quick.
The worry is that once the Taliban has taken over some parts of Afghanistan [and US troops have left], they start to let al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups do what they want, and then al-Qaeda regroups or other terrorist groups [get stronger], and then perhaps begin posing a threat to the United States. That’s the worry.
In that case, though, the US assumes counterterrorism capabilities are going to be enough. So, honestly, in this administration, I don’t really see that happening. I don’t see the US military becoming involved again in Afghanistan.
It does seem very bleak, if I’m being honest. If there is a best-case scenario for Afghanistan right now, even against long odds?
Up to the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha, I thought maybe we could actually get a decent deal signed. That was a pretty bad deal to begin with. Once it was signed, things have just been downhill from there. So I thought things looked bleak in February 2020.
They look far worse now. I am wary enough of the Taliban that I don’t see any evidence that they will either go for a peace deal or change their ways, not want a military takeover. I think perhaps the hope — and hope is not a strategy — the hope lies in perhaps the Afghan government and security forces being able to muster something up to hold them back. And I’m very sadly watching with worry.
Even in that scenario, it seems as if it will just generate more fighting, more violence, which will be felt by the people of Afghanistan.
That’s absolutely right. In the medium term, that just means bloodshed.
I can’t imagine what those in Afghanistan are thinking about the future. It requires a lot of bravery just to be there, just to continue to go on doing the jobs they’re doing. Women journalists in particular — so many attacked in the last few months. Going to school may mean you don’t go home. It’s just horrible.