August 16, 2021(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
This article was first published by Stratfor Worldview and is reprinted here with permission.
The Taliban is now in Kabul, and negotiating for the peaceful transfer of power from a collapsing Afghan government to the reinstated Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled to Uzbekistan, while former President Hamid Karzai, former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are reportedly in talks with the Taliban to facilitate the transition.
Taliban officials have reportedly told their forces to take up security positions inside Kabul, but not to enter people’s houses or engage in revenge attacks, and have offered an amnesty for those who worked with the Afghan government or even with foreign forces. Reports of looting have emerged, and shots fired near the airport reportedly stopped commercial flights. Several Western embassies have closed or evacuated staff, and earlier reports noted that the United States was calling on any remaining citizens in Kabul to shelter in place given the status of the airport. Nonetheless, the Taliban is seeking to shape the narrative that their accession to power is legitimate — a message for both inside Afghanistan and beyond its borders.
The speed of the Taliban’s final advance suggests less military dominance than effective political insurgency coupled with an incohesive Afghan political system and security force struggling with flagging morale. In many cases, local officials and forces simply melted away or directly handed power to the Taliban, a pattern that largely seemed to be repeated in the final move on Kabul.
As the Taliban looks to formalize its control over Afghanistan and seeks legitimacy domestically and internationally, we will be considering several questions over the next several days and weeks — the answers to which will shape the next phase of the Afghan situation.
Is Ghani planning to set up some sort of anti-Taliban political or military force in Uzbekistan, and will he be able to gain any international support?
- Ghani has come under criticism from several officials who have stayed in Kabul for fleeing, but he refused to step down as president. It is possible that as several Western nations have asserted that they will not recognize Taliban rule, Ghani is positioning himself as the nucleus of an Afghan government in exile. His declining support in Afghanistan may make this moot, but we will also watch the Uzbek government to see if it will allow an opposition force to be established within its borders. Any reconstitution of a Northern Alliance opposition to the Taliban would need to include Uzbek and Tajik militia.
With the collapse of the Afghan police and security forces, where are the former soldiers and police going, and where are their weapons? Are they fleeing Afghanistan, shifting sides, or just reverting to their ethnic and tribal affiliations, and thus becoming the nuclei of numerous localized militia?
- The Taliban has taken control of most of Afghanistan, at least nominally. But much of that has been due to the collapse of the Afghan security forces, not necessarily their defeat. Afghanistan remains a complex ethnic and tribal society with local interests, and long-term control requires authority over the use of force. If soldiers and police have retained their weapons and shifted allegiance from the nation to their locality, then this presents a lingering civil war challenge for the Taliban. Such local militia forces may also provide levers for foreign powers to exploit to keep the Taliban off balance.
What sort of negotiated settlement are Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar likely to forge with the Taliban? In their attempts to gain domestic and international legitimacy, will the Taliban seek to keep aspects of the current bureaucracy or offer political concessions to powerful local leaders to avoid a prolonged civil war?
- Insurgency and governance are not necessarily the same skill sets, and the Taliban may find itself struggling to maintain its internal cohesion and manage the complex human landscape of Afghanistan. If the Taliban wants international recognition and engages in at least limited commerce with its neighbors, it will need to set up a functioning bureaucracy. Forging selective power sharing arrangements may give it access to a trained workforce and reduce the likelihood of anti-Taliban insurgency, but it will also require additional political compromises by the Taliban.
Will the Taliban facilitate the peaceful evacuation of foreign personnel from Kabul after they complete the transfer of power?
- If they are seeking legitimacy, then they may well do so. It is unclear, however, if the Taliban have complete control over all of their forces and fighters, and there may be some seeking to exploit foreigners caught behind the lines in Afghanistan.
Which countries are likely to recognize the Taliban-led government? Has Taliban outreach to Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and the Gulf paved the way for formal, or even unofficial, recognition?
- Pakistan has sent mixed messages, but the apparent inevitability of Taliban control may leave Islamabad and Afghanistan’s other neighbors little option but to deal with the Taliban, even if they don’t grant formal diplomatic recognition. If China or Russia were to recognize the Taliban, that would be a major victory for the group, as no permanent member of the U.N. Security Council recognized their first government in the late 1990s. China is particularly important to watch in this regard. Beijing has engaged with the Taliban and laid out its expectations of any future government — deny sanctuary for Uyghur militants, protect Chinese business and infrastructure interests, limit the spread of cross-border militancy from spilling into Central or South Asia and compromising China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing may well recognize the reality of the Taliban over the preferences of Western powers, just as recently we have seen China reengaging with the new military leadership of Myanmar, effectively accepting the military as the legitimate government. But while Chinese diplomatic recognition would be a major breakthrough for the group, it would require the Taliban to exert more influence or control over foreign militant elements inside Afghanistan, something it may not be fully capable of doing.
What are the implications for other militant groups in Afghanistan, namely, al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province?
- Unverified reports indicate that the Taliban have freed dozens of prisoners, including some ISKP members. The Taliban have used foreign fighters in its cause, and in the past have sheltered transnational militants. It has also, however, fought the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, seeing it as a competing power center. Numerous prisons have been overrun and emptied, or have seen prison breaks, so the Taliban will not only see its own fighters freed, but potentially competing militants. If the Taliban are serious about gaining some aspect of international recognition, even regionally, it will be forced to act quickly to rein in other militants. This will add to the likely simmering unrest that is likely to plague Afghanistan as the Taliban transitions from insurgency to rule.
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