American Studies, Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Afghanistan: War Without End?

Afghanistan: War Without End?

Anatol Lieven, Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, delivered a CIRS Monthly Dialogue titled, “Afghanistan: War Without End?” on November 9, 2015. Lieven recounted his experiences as a journalist reporting from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and visiting the country for research in recent years, and offered comparisons between the effects of Soviet military withdrawal in 1989 and the withdrawal of most US troops today. The main difference between the two time periods in Afghan history is that the local government created by the United States is arguably weaker than the one the Soviets left behind, and this is exemplified by the fact that Afghanistan continued as a communist state even after the fall of the USSR. A similarity between the two time periods is continued “overwhelming dependence of the Afghan state on outside help…Around 90 percent of the Afghan state budget and 100 percent of the security budget depends on outside financial aid,” Lieven said.

President Obama pledged the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of his time in office, but there are three major reasons for why this still has not been accomplished. The first obstacle is the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The establishment of a local branch made up of Afghan and foreign fighters spells further drastic consequences for the US if it ever evacuated the country. The second is the revolt of the Islamic State in Iraq following the US military withdrawal from there, and the near collapse of the Iraqi state. Lieven argued that “the US cannot afford another collapse of a client regime, or an Islamist militant force taking over another large area in the Muslim World.” The third reason for why the US cannot withdraw from the country comes in the form of the Taliban’s resurgent strength and its temporary seizure of Kunduz in September 2015, highlighting the group’s tenacity, and their willingness to fill the impending power vacuum should the US withdraw its military support.

Also disastrous for the future of Afghanistan would be withdrawal of European and US economic aid. Lieven explained that much, if not most, of the international aid money directed towards Afghanistan has been pilfered or squandered, leading Western governments and media to decry the high levels of corruption within Afghanistan, and to call for a halt in future funding. However, Lieven proposed an alternative reading of the situation. He argued that much of the money “redirected” within Afghanistan and by the Afghan government, can be considered a crucial form of state patronage. While this redistribution is illegal—insofar as legality has any meaning in Afghanistan today—it works towards the concentration of wealth and power in Kabul as opposed to its decentralization into the hands of regional warlords, and can be viewed as a better option than depending on profits generated through the enduring heroin industry. The heroin trade is profitable for individual actors, and results in the decentralization of power across groups of actors, including members of the government operating in a non-official capacity, and, of course, the Taliban. In this sense, where the West perceives corrupt practices regarding international aid, the Afghan government perceives a consolidation of the central government’s position, and thereby, a strengthening of the state.

Adding further complexity to the state of Afghan affairs, Lieven pointed out that much of the current aid money bestowed upon Afghanistan has, in fact, been pilfered and redistributed, albeit “legally,” by the very Western organizations hired to help in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Highlighting a further hypocrisy, he said that the strategy of buying the support of local warlords was the very one devised by the US government upon invading Afghanistan in 2001.

In conclusion, Lieven gave some insights into the future of Afghanistan, positing that neither the Afghan regime, nor the Taliban opposition are united any longer. Indeed there is a sort of competition between them as to which disintegrates faster.

The Taliban used to be a formidably united force under the charismatic leadership of Mullah Omar, but since the belated acknowledgment of his death this summer, the movement has split, with large sections refusing to accept the legitimacy of his official successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansur, leader of the Taliban Political Committee based in Pakistan. The fact that this dissident faction includes some leading Taliban field commanders makes it a dangerous opponent to Mansur. Meanwhile, other Taliban radicals have left the movement altogether to join the Islamic State (IS), which has set up a branch in eastern Afghanistan. IS has attracted supporters from members of the Pakistani Taliban and international militants from the former USSR, who have been driven across the border into Afghanistan by the successful offensives of the Pakistani army earlier this year.

This ought to give the Afghan government a major opportunity to push the Taliban back, but unfortunately it seems as if the Taliban on the ground—like the Mujahidin of the 1980s before them—are still capable of uniting to fight the Afghan National Army. However, it does not seem likely that they can ever conquer most of the non-Pashtun areas of the country, since even if the USA does withdraw completely, India, Russia, and Iran will support their allies within Afghanistan.

Moreover, the government is itself deeply split and indeed almost paralyzed between the competing authorities of the president, Ashraf Ghani, and the “chief executive,” Abdullah Abdullah. Analysts warned at the time against the power-sharing deal cobbled together by the USA to end last year’s political crisis over the disputed presidential election results. They said that it could not possibly work—and it hasn’t. So bad has the political situation become that there is strong support for the idea of calling a new national assembly and bringing back former President Hamid Karzai—something that would be disastrous for Western public support.

Amongst other things, the split in Kabul makes it extremely difficult, or even impossible, for the government to make a peace offer to the Taliban that would appeal to the pragmatists who support Mullah Mansur, and might draw them into an alliance against the Islamic State.

As a final word, Lieven noted that the nature of the Afghan state, as created by the United States, can only function as an extension of US hegemony. The current Afghanistan cannot exist autonomously, and will certainly collapse if the US security scaffolding is removed. “As things stand,” he said, “the most likely future seems to be one of long-term messy warfare between multiple actors,” controlling different parts of the country. 

 Anatol Lieven is a professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service based in Doha, Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. His latest book, Pakistan: A Hard Country was published in 2011. From 1986 to 1998, Lieven worked as a British journalist in South Asia and the former Soviet Union, and is author of several books on Russia and its neighbors. From 2000 to 2007 he worked at think tanks in Washington DC. A new edition of his book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism was published in 2012.   Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications