Part 3 – Where external actors have leverage
The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is about to usher in a new political and social situation in the country. Earlier in this three-part blogging series, I detailed four possible scenarios for Afghanistan’s future and analyzed the internal factors that shape their probabilities. In this last piece, I analyze where external actors have a leverage effect.
There is no external solution to the violence in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. International engagement is likely to influence developments in Afghanistan at the margins. Various countries have some ability to shape the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the country’s agents of power. However, their actions are more likely to intensify violence than to temper it, even if all regional actors are against civil war, an Islamic emirate, or a government exclusively run by the Taliban.
The Afghan government
The United States has the greatest leverage over the Afghan government because of its funding for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The reduction in this funding would lead to a rapid collapse of the ANDSF and a rapid expansion of the power of the Taliban. Washington also helps finance the civilian administration in Afghanistan on which any future government will depend.
However, this leverage did not allow the United States to orchestrate an interim unity government despite Biden administration’s spring 2021 efforts to do so to facilitate negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. The Taliban are not interested in a snap election – the maximum President Ashraf Ghani was prepared to consider. Instead, he seeks to bypass and render the Afghan government useless and negotiate a new division of power with the Afghan brokers.
The Afghan government has also shown no serious interest in negotiating with the Taliban in the past 15 months. Any deal that the Taliban would have been willing to accept would have required significant concessions from Kabul. Instead, the Afghan government attempted to involve the United States in the fighting in Afghanistan until an agreement preserving its power and existing political dispensation could be reached – that is, until ‘That the Taliban are defeated, however many years it takes.
The influence of the United States over the past two decades has also not translated into shaping governance in Afghanistan towards greater inclusion and accountability and less corruption and predatory governance.
The United States and other international actors may attempt to shape the Afghan government’s attitude towards negotiations by offering or denying visas and asylum to key members of the government and possibly threatening to seize abroad. their illegally obtained financial assets. Of course, the latter requires having portfolios of criminal acts against members of the government.
Afghan powerbrokers and militias
These same tools – providing or denying visas and asylum, threats to seize illicit funds abroad and legal indictments that deny them access to their assets abroad and to the international financial system – s’ also apply to Afghan brokers when they decide to leave the government, stick to it, or raise militias to fight the Taliban.
Currently, the United States and its partners should push to keep the Afghan political scene as united as possible around the government and create deterrents for separate accommodation agreements with the Taliban. International actors should support and facilitate negotiations between Afghan power actors and the Afghan government, such as recent efforts towards a national unity council. The more the Afghan political actors offer a united front vis-à-vis the Taliban, the more the political concessions they will have to make to the Taliban will be reduced. However, even now, with the country on the brink of precipice, the National Unity Council talks – like many previous iterations – remain mired in narrow political calculations. And as the Taliban gain in military power, international influence vis-à-vis the powerful Afghans will weaken.
International actors can also support Afghan powerbrokers or independent militias. Russia and Iran have taken this route, with Russia supporting the formation of militias in the north for a few years and Iran sponsoring and training Afghan Shiite fighters known as the fatemiyoun. With various levels of training and organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, some fatemiyoun who fought in Syria returned to Afghanistan. Others might come back and start fighting the Taliban.
At the same time, Russia and Iran have entered into separate agreements with the Taliban, providing them with weapons and intelligence. Iran also hosts Taliban leaders and their families.
The United States has established counterterrorism militias in Afghanistan, many of which have engaged in gross human rights violations and pushed the local populations into the hands of the Taliban. In the context of a protracted civil war, or if the Taliban violates its counterterrorism commitments to Washington by authorizing terrorist attacks against American assets or allies, the United States could order these militias to fight the Taliban.
China has not cultivated militia proxies in Afghanistan, although it has assiduously sought to cultivate local Afghan government officials along the Afghan border with China and Pakistan. Instead, he also made peace with the Taliban, relying on assurances from the Taliban to preserve Chinese economic interests and prevent Uyghur fighters in Afghanistan from helping suppressed Muslim brothers in Xinjiang. Beijing could also try to resurrect a military base in Badakhshan province – not to fight the Taliban but to prevent the escape of militancy towards China.
The most strategic international intervention would be to shape the Taliban regime. Beyond counterterrorism, the first element would be to get the Taliban to avoid excluding ethnic minorities from the new regime. The international community should also seek to reduce the scale of human rights abuses, in particular the rights of women.
Formatting tools include denying or issuing visas, removing or imposing international financial and other sanctions, releasing captured Taliban fighters, and delivering or denying international aid to a future government, including the Taliban.
Aid is a particularly useful tool because the Taliban do not want to economically ruin Afghanistan as they did in the 1990s, when they deliberately destroyed the remnants of the economy and administration ravaged by the war to “purify” Afghanistan.
Another crucial shaping tool is to educate the Taliban on the requirements and modalities of modern governance, including donor aid requirements regarding social inclusion, women’s rights and financial accountability. Flying Taliban leaders on a world tour to expose the group to the kind of country they could have with the preservation of donor aid and clearly communicating what red lines cannot be crossed – like denying women access altogether to education, health and employment as in the 1990s, or brutalizing the Shiites – could have pronounced effects.
While the international community may demand that the Taliban reduce violence, such a goal is highly unlikely for at least a year. Pakistan, too, will not be able to influence the Taliban, even if it seeks to do so. The Taliban understand that their military ancestry increases their internal bargaining power. Even Pakistan’s fear that US military disengagement from Afghanistan may lead the US to stop focusing on Pakistan, while cultivating India as a partner against China, does not give Islamabad a magic wand to stop the Taliban military push.
Paradoxically, of course, the arrival of the Taliban into formal government in Afghanistan may reduce Pakistan’s influence over the group, especially if influential international actors have a working relationship with the Taliban. Even before formal power, if the Taliban manage to move their political leaders and families from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s influence will wane. The balance of power between Pakistan and the Taliban will also be influenced by the internal rebalancing of power within the Taliban between Shuras Quetta and Peshawar, Haqqanis, military leader Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, older leaders such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the Taliban field commanders.
In addition to shaping the Taliban and Afghan powers and government, the international community should maintain financial support for Afghan civil society (as well as provide asylum visas to those at risk). He should insist that civil society actors be included in the negotiations on the new arrangements in the country. It is important to seek to expand any deal between the Taliban and power brokers to include certain voices from civil society and women.
While international actors have influence, none of their tools can preserve the current Afghan constitutional order and rights regime. While financial incentives, international recognition, sanctions, and occasional military strikes may make the Taliban more in line with their counterterrorism obligations and less autocratic and exclusionary in their governance, they will not turn the Taliban into promoters. democracy supporting women’s rights.
The rule that a Taliban-led government promotes will always be authoritarian rule – perhaps an Iran-like arrangement of a supreme religious council with deeply flawed, but competitive elections of an underlying executive branch and of a technocratic administration.
If key members of the international community, including the US Congress or members of the European Union, cannot afford to provide financial assistance to a future Afghan government led by the Taliban, they could undermine any emerging authoritarian stability. .
Twenty years after stepping in to oust the Taliban from power, limiting the extent of the casualties to the rights currently afforded to Afghans – while being careful not to exacerbate and prolong the country’s civil war – is the best we can do.