Since the completion of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, two frames have defined the debate surrounding why the accompanying Taliban offensive was so quick and so effective. First, the US withdrawal precipitated a Taliban victory. Having outstayed the US intervention (which many argue was made more likely by repeated attempts to set a specific withdrawal date for military forces), the Taliban was able to realize its goal of taking control of the Afghan state. Second, the Taliban’s successful rout of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the abandonment of the country by the government of Ashraf Ghani signaled a reversion to pre-intervention Afghanistan. Each of these are wide of the mark.
Taliban control was precipitated by, and will now be contested because of, the fractured character of military force in the country. The Taliban was able to successfully contest both the ANA and US control of the country for much of the last five years. In large swaths of territory, either Taliban control was effectively complete, a steady back and forth between ANA and Taliban control ensured any real form of political control was unattainable for either side (which in effect amounts to gain for the Taliban), or the Taliban was at least able to harass government forces to ensure they were in a constant state of stress. Irrespective of the capacity of the ANA this constant stress hobbled the operational effectiveness of what looked to be (on paper) a strong military force. Regardless of the Biden administration’s rhetoric, it’s not that the ANA could fight and didn’t. Fatality and casualty rates among ANA units over the last few years attest to a willingness to fight against the Taliban, meaning the largescale collapse was itself a function of the shifting weight of various groups.
Rather than a simple either-or question of whether the United States should have continued to support the ANA or not, the reality is that the fractured political landscape of Afghanistan accounts for the whiplash change of heart on the part of ANA forces. Having proved willing to fight (and in large numbers die) under poor, often corrupt leadership and with little pay, the calculation seems to be that the government would not be able to contest control. But, we did not see mass desertion to the Taliban either. What likely became clear was that whereas in the 1990s when the Taliban took control during a protracted civil war, local militia leaders and warlords shared at least some incentives to support the group’s control, this is not the case now. Rather than a reversion the US intervention has had a substantive effect on the political context, even if twenty years of misguided operational decisions meant that effect was not democratization.
The Maturation of a Decentered Military System
Contrary to many insinuations that US intervention had no discernable effect on the pattern of armed groups in Afghanistan, and that there is an uninterrupted line between the emergence of the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion through to the modern Taliban, Afghanistan has been undergoing a particular kind of maturation in terms of the nature, quality, and incentives facing the various armed groups that define its politics.
What we see over the last forty-two years in Afghanistan has been the development and maturation of a decentralized, nonhierarchical military structure that now creates the potential for both ongoing conflict and ongoing contestation of Taliban control. Rather than conflict being a function of “ancient hatreds” or indicating a recourse to “tribal allegiances”—two narratives that have been thoroughly debunked—the pattern of violence in Afghanistan is now marked by the empowerment and institutionalization of various forms of armed groups that can all contest the control of others. The comparison that brings this to light is not Tuareg rebellions in Mali or warlordism in Somalia but the character of the Yugoslav National Army and its role in shaping the nature of civil war in the Balkans over the 1990s.
Underlying the emergence of civil conflict and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was the institutional legacy of Yugoslavia’s policy of “Total National Defense.” As a nonaligned power isolated from the Soviet bloc following the Tito-Stalin split, Yugoslavia channeled its experience in World War II into a specific military doctrine. Military force was decentralized into specific, localized units trained and equipped to fight an ongoing insurgency war against any would-be invader. This decentralization and localization also made the groups difficult to track and allowed them to operate independently, ensuring an insurgency could continue regardless of which units were destroyed. Yugoslavia would thus become a hornet’s nest for any occupying force that dislodged the federal government. While invasion never occurred, these institutionalized and localized units became a foundation for the emergence of ethnic militias following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Militia groups and the Bosnian Serb Army did not materialize out of thin air or gel simply because arms became available following the departure of the Yugoslav National Army, but because a set of institutional mechanisms already existed for them to be built upon.
The last four decades of Afghan history have created a similar system, if one defined by war and ongoing intervention rather than central government planning. Defining Afghanistan as an indomitable place that has sent empires as far back as Alexander the Great packing misses this fact. The mujahideen comprised a loosely organized collection of groups armed by the United States, but the experiences of Soviet invasion, US support, the civil war preceding Taliban rule, and the subsequent US-led intervention in 2001 have had the effect of creating and maturing a similar context. One must remember that, to much applause, the US intervention was largely predicated on using airpower and special operations forces to empower various anti-Taliban armed factions. This support, and the subsequent channeling of US efforts to realize the security-related goals of nation building over the last twenty years, likely ensconced and refined this network of groups. Much like in the Balkans, the resulting decentralized system will become a foundation for the emergence of myriad armed actors with the capacity to pursue their own goals and contest Taliban control.
The fact that many ANA soldiers did not flock to the Taliban makes this all the more worrying, as does the fact that so much military hardware has been left behind. Rather than these troops and all this materiel flowing to the Taliban, these will likely become resources for myriad other armed groups. This will entrench factionalism, not empower the Taliban.
The Next Year
What this means for the future of Afghanistan, its role in the larger global security environment, and the United States’ ability to exert influence there was on clear display during the military withdrawal. The Taliban will likely maintain at least begrudging acceptance of US interests in Afghanistan and allow it to conduct counterterrorism operations within the country, even if only tacitly. It’s relationship to al-Qaeda notwithstanding, its goal will be to maintain control in the face of other armed groups. Thus, if it can manage to focus US counterterrorism efforts in the country on rival groups like ISIS-K, the effect would be a positive for its strategic outlook.
This explains the seemingly authentic attempts the Taliban have been making to maintain at least a working relationship with the United States (evidenced by their willingness to allow the US evacuation to occur uninhibited and maintain much of the government structure below the executive level) and adopt policies that avoid their full isolation from the international community. To be clear, the Taliban government will be a repressive and violent regime; injustice and moral outrages will occur under its stewardship. Not only is this part of the group’s general approach to rule, but it is also true that it is unlikely that the senior Taliban leadership will be able to fully control its various subunits directly. However, these activities will likely be subdued (or punished) to ensure they stay below a level that would precipitate the breaking of a working relationship with—or attract threats from—the United States and other international actors. That this informs their thinking is not that outlandish given their treatment as a viable negotiating partner by the Trump administration and early overtures from the Biden team.
Incidentally, even ISIS-K might feel incentivized to conform to a similar logic. An effectively planned and conducted counterterrorism campaign against the group could have devastating effects. Of course, the United States is exceedingly unlikely to simply abandon efforts against ISIS-K altogether, but the group might be strongly tempted to avoid targeting direct US interests too heavily in the hopes that the US government might adopt tactics that do not substantially disrupt its capacity to contest the Taliban government. ISIS-K’s goal, in such a scenario, would be to ensure US counterterrorism posture is limited to flashy, marquee events that play well politically but do not actually disrupt the groups capacity to operate. Ultimately, for ISIS-K, like other group, the continued ability to contest is paramount, enabling it to recruit in the face of ongoing violence, grow their capacity, and make gains.
This is only the opening round. Over the next year (or two) this competition between the Taliban and other groups will continue. As the conflict continues, the limits of Taliban control will become clear. At that point, if those limits are insufficient to retain control, we will likely see the mobilization of various other groups, potentially leading to an outright civil war.
What the United States Can Do
At this point it is unlikely that the US can meaningfully change the contest pitting the Taliban against other armed groups from a distance. So what should US strategy be?
For all its heinousness, the Taliban are in a position where the US and international community have far more leverage over them than in the 1990s. It is this fact, not any meaningful change in the group’s ideology, that makes it possible for the United States to influence the group to moderate its behavior and achieve the strategic goal of keeping Afghanistan at least moderately stable (and thus not an open space for terrorist groups to use as an incubator). Strategic efforts should be disciplined by this fact. Understanding that our counterterrorism efforts could just as easily support their rule as scuttle it, we should exact specific, focused concessions from the Taliban leadership. Following Mary Kaldor’s work on what she calls new wars, this should not be done through the lens of how we’ve waged the post-9/11 “war on terrorism” to this point, but with the aim of building a viable civil society structure that can be an alternative to the militarized one outlined above. Twenty years of US-led military intervention failed to achieve this goal of enabling security by building and empowering civil society; that doesn’t mean it can’t be done by influencing the Taliban regime while the opportunity to do so exists.
The United States must also be clear-eyed about the fact that given the context of Afghanistan we cannot entirely separate the kinetic strikes of counterterrorism from the political work of counterinsurgency. While President Biden has emphasized this distinction since he was vice president during the Obama administration, and such a separation was part of the Trump administration’s framing of its own withdrawal plans, it is unsustainable. This actually entails a revision of how the US government conceptualizes counterterrorism. Targeted strikes and special operations raids will disrupt networks, but in an Afghanistan where the Taliban rules and other armed groups will contest its authority, the traditional counterterrorism tools will also merely feed the conflict and allow various groups to become more battle-hardened. As odious as it might seem to do so, we must pick sides in Afghanistan and calibrate our counterterrorism efforts to ensure they are supported. In the short run, that may mean working to solidify or at least maintain Taliban control. Doing so, of course, does not and should not mean we cannot address this later if our efforts are able to alter the underlying structure of armed forces in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, US strategy must accept the realities of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The Taliban are back in power, but the conditions are changed, and it is certainly not the 1990s again. Frustrating as it might have been to watch the group enter Kabul in August, advancing US interests in the country and the broader region now requires the United States to recognize that the Taliban have their hands on the levers of power, that that power is contested, and positive strategic outcomes will depend on how that contest plays out.
Jack Adam MacLennan is assistant professor of political science and graduate program director for national security studies at Park University in Parkville, Missouri. His research focuses on how technology and material influences shape national security politics. His most recent work appears in Global Responsibility to Protect.
James R. Horncastle is assistant professor of humanities and Edward and Emily McWhinney professor of international relations at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. He is author of Macedonian Slavs in the Greek Civil War, 1944–1949 (Lexington Press). He has published widely on conflict in the Balkan states.
The authors’ most recent publication together is “Where Eagles Err: Contemporary Geopolitics and the Future of Western Special Operations,” published in the Special Operations Journal in the spring of 2021.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: AhmadElhan