Post US Withdrawal Afghanistan: Where Do We Go From Here?



While even the smallest changes may trigger a chain reaction, some of these may be regarded as historical owing to their far- reaching impact. Ever-changing conditions bring new opportunities and may cause new challenges as well. What we witnessed on August 15, 2021 in Afghanistan was a change of similar nature; though apparently it was a declaration of retreat of one side and the victory of the other in the US Taliban War, in reality it is expected to have far-reaching impact not only for Afghanistan and the region but globally as well in view of the prevailing political and strategic dynamics. The state of affairs in Kabul seems somewhat stable now but it is still in a flux. It will certainly take some time to fully settle. Hence, predicting the future situation at this stage should be taken as an exercise rather than a forecast.

One of the salient features of such an analysis is that although it is not easy to predict before an event has taken place, it is also not difficult to look back after the event to analyze that for everything that happened, necessary factors had come into existence and the observers could see them clearly. A number of things now appear to be settled in Afghanistan or are at least in the process of taking shape. A look at the developments leading to the US withdrawal and some of the questions arising out of them will be helpful to have an understanding of the evolving scenario.

The Developments and Emerging Issues

While the war was raging on in the country for twenty years, the endgame was a matter of few weeks. In fact, except for a brief spell of resistance in Panjshir. Taliban did not face any resistance even while entering Kabul. All predictions of bloodshed and civil war as well as “possible influx of refugees” to the neighboring countries proved wrong. Many observers and even the world leaders expressed surprise on the situation and raised questions about the capabilities of political government and of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). Was it really surprising? We shall discuss it later.

After retaking Kabul, the Taliban soberly made moves to consolidate their position, announced and practically demonstrated general amnesty denounced some of their past actions and expressed a distinctly different view about their approach to human rights, education, media and entertainment than in the past”, About the future government, they indicated inclusivity of most ethnic groups.

Against this backdrop, the question was raised as to whether there has been a real change in the thinking and behaviour of the Taliban, While we shall also discuss this question later, it is important to recognize that Taliban, with the above assertions, have provided parameters to measure their performance. Not surprisingly, the world began to examine the Taliban’s immediate moves on the same scale. Given this situation, a new war of narrative began which overshadowed the discussion on the causes of war and the resultant destruction. While the longest US military engagement came to an end, allies appeared panicked, although they were planning the exit since months. The panic caused loss of lives and created ugly scenes in Kabul during the evacuation operation.

US and the allies did whatever they could to destroy the Taliban and thus ensure a permanent foothold in the region. They, however, remained unsuccessful. In the process they spent more than $2.26 trillion and lost around 2500 soldiers. Their so called efforts to ‘Build Afghan Nation’ and establish a system of their choice also failed. Thus the questions as to what really were the objectives of intervention in Afghanistan and what had they really achieved were further highlighted.

Moreover, by using the most lethal and advanced destructive technology, the occupying forces martyred more than 2,40,000 Afghans mostly innocent and non-combatants. Spill over of the war also caused Shahadat of 80,000 Pakistanis. They did not only commit gross human rights violations but also war crimes and breached international laws, What kind of accountability the global system may offer for these violations is another question; The announcements and measures taken to give asylum to their Afghan associates and workers by the US and its Western allies not only reinforced the existing polarization in Afghanistan, it further cast fear, confusion and uncertainty. Will it be far-fetched to think that over time, these overseas Afghans may become subject of political and Islamophobia campaigns and may also be used against the incumbent rulers in Afghanistan. On the other hand, what will finally happen to these migrating Afghans remains unclear when seen in the context of their panicked departure. Meanwhile, the greatest loss suffered by the US is of goodwill whatever it had. Its inability to provide a genuine global leadership was further established 20. Its double-standards were further exposed. The internal weaknesses of the American system also became evident.

Regarding Pakistan, its role in making the peace negotiations and deal possible was generally recognized at various levels. It also gained goodwill in facilitating the evacuation of diplomats and professionals from Kabul and helping international media visit Afghanistan. Moreover, the threat emanating from its western border has been minimized; no new episode of civil war and consequently influx of new refugees took place or even looked imminent. Pakistan, therefore, made moves to engage with the Taliban. Other neighboring countries also appeared, though cautiously, in a re conciliatory and engaging mode with the new dispensation in Kabul.

While India, which had made considerable investments in Afghanistan and was using its leverage to create mischief in Pakistan had continued supporting Ghani government openly until the last minute. The US exit and the end of former government certainly created an embarrassing situation for New Delhi. New Delhi’s approach did not reflect any immediate signs of rectification. How will it conduct its relations with Taliban’s Afghanistan in the long run is an important question, particularly in the wake of its strategy in the past wherein it has remained hostile to Taliban and a lot of misinformation and fake news used to be generated from various Indian political and media sources.

Meanwhile, the inabilities and shortcomings of global governance have once again become evident. The campaign lasting for 20 years started in the name of ‘war on terror’, continued and spread to other parts of the world without even a consensus on the definition of ‘terrorism’. The United Nations (UN) appeared to be helpless and orchestrating the plans of powerful players for their interests. So, questions such as, what kind of role the UN can now play for a sustainable peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan or what will happen in future in a similar situation or how the global governance can be improved have resurfaced.

In order to understand a future scenario, it will be pertinent here to discuss in some detail the questions which have been highlighted above.

Taliban’s Swift and Peaceful Entry in Kabul: Was it Really Surprising?

We shall discuss this question by having a look at the Peace Deal, Kabul’s Government and the ANDSF’s status and capabilities.

The Peace Deal

Negotiations for the peace deal had begun months earlier. The deal had provided:

Afghanistan’s territory will not be used against any country; all foreign forces, including their contractors, would withdraw; and an intra-Afghan dialogue will be held for a permanent ceasefire and a comprehensive political strategy for the future of Afghanistan. The US promised to review sanctions on the Taliban once the intra-Afghan dialogue begins, and to take steps to waive sanctions on the Taliban from the UN Security Council. The US and Taliban also not only discussed a ‘post-settlement Afghan Islamic government’ but the US also promised economic cooperation for reconstruction of Afghanistan from their allies and other countries in the event of a successful intra-Afghan dialogue.

In the light of this agreement, it was not difficult to predict the days to come. The Taliban were not only recognized as a political force but rulers for the next dispensation, if not exclusive, at least as the main player and dominant partner. Therefore, their comeback shouldn’t have been astonishing. Importantly, the signal to accept the Taliban as a reality and the main player for a future role in Afghanistan was not only given by the US, but also by other countries including China and Russia which had been in constant touch with the Taliban and held meetings with them.

Status of Kabul Government

The US, to some extent, kept the Kabul government informed of the process of negotiations, but without a chance to participate. This was a clear message for Ghani and a show of no confidence on his role and capacity. There were only two parties to the peace agreement which was signed in front of the whole world and broadcast live. Shortly after the deal, the US President Trump announced the Taliban’s future role, saying “American troops were killing terrorists in Afghanistan. And now it’s time for someone else to take over and it will be the Taliban and the neighboring countries”.

The fragility of Kabul government was no secret. Even when the US-Taliban peace deal was struck, months after the presidential election in 2019, both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah were claiming to be elected presidents, they both took the oath for the same office on the same day.

Thus, at the time of the peace deal, governance in Afghanistan was at its lowest. Even after the peace deal it took the two leaders another few days to reconcile. Finally, when an agreement was reached between them, Ashraf Ghani became President and Abdullah Abdullah was made the head of the delegation to negotiate with the Taliban.

Status and Capabilities of ANDSF

It was generally believed that the military’s combat capability must have been quite reasonable as a result of professional training and the availability of most modern weapons. But the reality was that the Afghan army’s capabilities were steadily declining. Reports to the Congress from the US Department of Defense in 2017 and 2019 had clearly stated that the names of thousands of ghost soldiers have been removed from the lists. This clearly meant that the number of soldiers mentioned before included the number of ghost soldiers and it was never 352000. The Department of Defense reported to Congress in December 2020 that 298000 ANDSF soldiers were eligible for pay an even bigger issue with regard to the capabilities of the Afghan army was the ongoing corruption, fraud and wastage of billions of dollars, which was constantly pointed out in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports.

Above all, most in the Afghan army, neither had a genuinely motivating cause nor a charismatic national leadership who could inspire them to sacrifice. As the US made its exit plan public and signaled about withdrawing its future support to Ghani government, conditions for future service payments also began to look doubtful. The Afghan army’s morale plummeted further as it was stripped of its protection by the US in the form of an air cover. The way Bagram Air Base was evacuated, on July 5, 2021, without formally giving charge to ANDSF proved to be the last nail in the coffin. The Taliban’s seizure of various district capitals and their offer of general amnesty did the rest to create an atmosphere where the ANDSF soldiers opted not to resist. The fact is that for any country in the region, not just the US and NATO, if the Taliban’s entry into Kabul had come as a surprise, it should either be regarded as failure of their intelligence or be considered an attempt to distract the attention from their miserable failure.

Return of Conservatism Debate

To discuss this question, it would be useful to take into account the circumstances which the Taliban have gone through during last over twenty-five years. There are at least five points to consider in this regard:

First, the 1990s Taliban were a product of the unrest and a response to the civil war, Shariah was certainly a reference point for them, but they did not have the preparation for what it should look like at the operational level. Now they are able to reflect and analyze the steps taken during their previous five-year rule and their impact and formulate their approach accordingly.

Second, their original identity was associated with a particular (Deobandi) school of thought as a major impetus for their formation at that time and they were in clash with former Mujahedeen groups. During the twenty years of current resistance, not only did direct confrontation with these groups end, but on and off the record interactions also took place between them at various levels. It is but natural that these interactions have influenced Taliban’s worldview and their approach to ope rationalize and implement their religious agenda.

Third, the fact that the last two decades have witnessed rapid globalization and revolution in information technology. Even in many remote areas, people can connect any time with the rest of the world. The Taliban, specially from the younger generation are no exception and this exposure is continuously on the rise.

Fourth, the establishment of an office in Doha in June 2013, many years of holding direct talks with the US as well as contacts with many other countries and participation in various meetings in global capitals have given the leadership that amount of exposure which despite being in government, they were unable to get during the 1990s. These interactions have honed their ability to understand the dynamics of political struggles and diplomacy and respond to issues in a timely manner as well as acquainting them with other aspects of contemporary dynamics of politics and life.

Lastly, a change in the Taliban does not, however, mean a change in their basic ideology nor anyone should demand it as freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, a change in their outlook and approach should be attributed to a desire to take people along and a change in the strategy to introduce their ideas into society.

Indeed, this changed outlook of Taliban is an opportunity for all those who are eager to see sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Recognition of their government and continuous engagement with them would not only convey a positive message on ground, it would also influence them not to back track. Thus it is important that all other stakeholders in global governance also prepare for change in their attitudes. In this context, assessing the outlook of US and allies is equally important.

Is There or Will There be a Change in US and Allies Thinking?

Looking at the post-withdrawal US position and actions, there seemed no immediate sign of such a change; the chances are getting even more slim. The following points are worth considering in this regard.

US Objectives and Goals

In fact, the question that ‘What will happen or what should happen’ in the future? is directly linked to this question of America’s Real Goals. The fact is that Washington appeared really confused. Craig Whitlock has quoted three generals in his book, as under:

“There was no campaign plan.”

“There was no coherent long-term strategy.”

“We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“That was just the beginning, it got worse”.

He says. Craig further writes, “Six years into the conflict, Army General Dan McNeill arrived to take charge, he said, I tried to get someone to define for me what winning means, even before I went over, and nobody could?”. This confusion is evident when one looks at the US’ frequently changing emphasis on its (declared) goals from 2001 to 2020, and strategy for achieving them which included among others targeting Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda, elimination of Taliban rule, end of terrorism, national reconstruction, nation building i.e., establishment of Western-Style democratic government in Afghanistan, etc?. Beyond the declared objectives, a growing sense of confusion at the domestic level, both in terms of priorities and strategies was very much evident. What could be the reason?

There has been a lot of discussion about the real US objectives which provides some explanation to this confusion. Monitoring, containing and influencing countries in the region, which include Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, while controlling Afghanistan and its huge potential of resources were, to most observers, the real and key US objectives. With the passage of time change in emphasis is natural as the prime objective now is the containment of China.

So, will the US abandon these goals in the coming days? In other words, after withdrawing from the military campaign in Afghanistan, will the US also retreat from its ambitions in the region? The answer to this question in the light of various moves of US and allies is not difficult which makes it easier to predict the future. One of the most recent example in this regard is the White House document of February 2022 outlining its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Use of Force and its Limitations

The equation in terms of political, financial and physical power of the two adversaries in Afghanistan was never a match. The level of disparity between the two can rarely be found in the war history. In spite of that, the mightiest power had to retreat after paying a heavy price. Will the players in the race for power in the world and in the region be ready to understand this fact? In the context of Afghanistan, this lesson is not new. Unfortunately, however, the lesson of history is that, few people learn from it.

Looking at the war economy and the world’s arms production and trade and role of the most powerful countries in it, the fear of adventures and launching of new campaigns based on use of force doesn’t seem to be vanishing. As to Afghanistan, however, it appears that no one would dare to invade it in the near future, in view of its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires.

Is Sustainable Peace and Prosperity Expected Without a Better Global Governance?

Looking at the ongoing conflicts and wars of 21 st century, which prominently includes Afghanistan, the global system appears to be either reluctant to take strong action or working in the interests of the powerful in almost all conflicts'”. The prevailing system may have been successful in preventing a direct armed conflict between the powerful countries, but it has made possible for the powerful countries to protect themselves and turn the whole world into a battlefield. Whether it is UN Security Council structure or its practical role, or the observance of international humanitarian laws and human rights issues, double standards are common in almost all cases. For many, improvement in global governance might be just an illusionary question, yet, the issue should remain in focus in any debate related to global peace, justice and security.

The War of Narratives: How is it Influencing the Situation?

While the phenomenon is not new it has gained increased currency in view of the contemporary protocols of international relations and laws of war. The aggressor has to build a case to justify certain actions, including war, against the target country lies, for influencing the world public opinion and consequently the states’ position in its favor. Technological advancement has provided new and extremely effective tools to spread any message irrespective of it being true or false. This situation has taken the war out of the battlefield and into the whole world. The way the post 8/15 Taliban’s positive policy announcements and their actions on the ground were interpreted as hoax and that it was merely a matter of Taliban’s public-relations is one such example. There are other important examples too to ponder here.

The intra-Afghan dialogue did not progress according to the terms of the peace deal. While Taliban’s tough approach was very much expected, this failure was due to the irrational and unreasonable attitude of Ghani and his government. Moreover, according to the agreement, the US was to take steps to lift sanctions on the Taliban. These measures have not come to light so far. Similarly, Ashraf Ghani and several key figures in the Kabul government fled the country and created the vacuum: the extreme panic demonstrated by US and allies while evacuating or freezing of $9.5 billion of the Afghan government’s reserves in US banks are some examples. Later, in February 2022 Biden announced using these funds for 9/11 victims, which was regarded as theft by Taliban, None of these issues and their impact are being discussed as prominently as, for example, the actions of the previous (1990s) Taliban government or occasional law and order incidents here and there in post 8/15 Afghanistan. Even when the performance of previous Taliban government is discussed, its remarkable achievements in providing safety and security to the citizens, quick and easy access to justice or eradication of poppy cultivation remain out of focus. Similarly, while measures by Taliban about women education and employment, according to the interpretations of their ideology are being hotly debated, ignoring their financial constraints, their present successes in governance and in providing stability and steps like banning of poppy cultivation are least discussed. On the other hand gross human rights violations by the occupying forces in Afghanistan during the war and related questions of war crimes remain out of focus. No doubt, in this overall context the narrative of war, portraying the Taliban and any of their past or future allies, negatively and concealing the crimes of occupying forces will continue to be a pattern in the coming days.

Moving Forward: How to Go for a Better Scenario?

In the light of the regional politics, the poor state of the global system and the interests of the powerful players, the expectations of an ideal scenario may not be met in the immediate future, but gradually moving towards a better scenario is something that all sincere and peace loving forces should aim for and synergize their efforts to work together to achieve peace and development.

Non-implementation of some important components of peace deal has certainly caused delays and created a vacuum that shaped an atmosphere of uncertainty. Nevertheless, it is now past. Recognition of the Taliban government by the international community is getting delayed, which is of course a challenge for the Taliban?, Nevertheless, a number of countries as well as the UN and its agencies are in touch with them 70 and the international community is realizing “that it will be impossible to truly assist Afghanistan’s people without working with the de facto authorities. While terrorist attacks by DAESH are happening and pose a challenge in the security arena, the Taliban are not facing any immediate threat to their rule. Moreover, historically, the Mullahs (clergy), Malaks (tribal lords), and Padshahs (the kings) remained the key elements of state machinery in Afghanistan. With their rule in Kabul and links with the Malaks they are in a unique position to deliver with minimum internal opposition. Thus, first and foremost, it is the role of the Taliban, who are now in the driving seat, to steer the path of peace. Following points are important in this regard.

Agenda for Taliban

is the question as to till what extent will they be able to keep their promises and pronouncements, remain disciplined and maintain unity within, provide a government which is honest, corruption- free, pro-development and pro-people, maintain friendly and win-win relations with other countries, and create a conducive environment for promoting internal, regional and global peace. The last one has shown positive indicators in all these areas with a relatively stable situation. Revenue system is in place. Since 2001 successive governments remained substantially dependent on foreign funding. The Taliban without any such backing have announced their first budget on May 14, 2022 over 80 % of which will be raised locally?, Still a lot needs to be done to have a long term sustainable journey. Their success would mean introduction of a new paradigm in politics and international relations.

Second the current temporary government was formed into fill the void. It will have to be transformed to a more stable and inclusive arrangement while taking professionals as well as technocrats on board. being not just an ordinary government, but a government which claims to be the follower of a particular vision and ideology (Shariah)?, the Taliban will continue to be in the spotlight. Their performance will play a direct role in advancing or obstructing this vision in the world. And it will also be an effective commentary on the paradigm on which today’s world system is based. While they are not expected to compromise on their ideology, strategies and priorities as well as direction, steps and pace should be in no way impulsive.

Fourth in the same context punishment should never be the first step in any transformation towards Shariah. While the overall government approach is visibly different from the first Taliban regime in 1990s, occasional incidents suggest that a greater attention to the issue is necessary. Creating a conducive environment for ‘doing good and avoiding evil’ should be the first step of any Shariah-based system. On the other hand, culture, sports, entertainment and tourism are indispensable and natural part of human life. Over time, market forces have occupied these fields with emphasis on a particular way of life. One test of the Taliban government will be as to how innovatively it can promote these activities without going beyond its ideological ambit.

Fifth, they will need to lessen polarization. Not just with a government which is symbolically inclusive but in the real sense and not for short term?, It is true that bringing polarization to zero is not possible and does not exist anywhere in the world, but minimizing it is in the interest of both Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Sixth the Taliban have been voicing their concerns over the constitution. It is not unnatural for them to take steps to amend this. However, it will also be a matter of inclusiveness that whatever changes are made, they should be as much by consensus as possible. Like any ideal constitution, it must have a workable way of peaceful change or continuation of government.

Seven, acquiring and investing in the ability to effectively and timely countering the war of narrative, which is not only motivated by political and economic interests but also has cultural, civilizational and ideological dimensions, should also be an important part of their immediate and long term agenda.

Eighth, the Taliban would also need to realize that use of power has its limitations. The US, in spite of all its military and material resources and blatant use of force, could not hold ground in Afghanistan. The same would happen to the Taliban if they pursue their agenda by force. Instead, their focus should be on making people feel good about them with their performance on ground. Having remained on ground for decades and thus gaining insights as to how the war economy works at grass roots, and how warlords, criminals and various local and foreign militant groups as well as drug mafias operate, they have to prove that they are in a position to neutralize these elements, just as they dealt with them during their first government.

Tenth, Afghanistan’s rich natural resources as well as its location makes it ideal for pursing a whole development agenda. A focus on it will connect Afghanistan and Afghans’ stakes directly with the region and will pave the way for extensive mutual cooperation and collective interests.

Expectations from the US and Allies

For the US and its allies, the first challenge is to genuinely recognize and accept that they have lost the war which has also damaged their honor and goodwill. That money, power and perception management have some strengths but in the final analysis these cannot genuinely win hearts and minds without a just policy. They will have to recognize that each country and society has its own value system and social dynamics for which they should be wholeheartedly accepted. They need to come up with an honest, judicious, humane and win-win approach to deal with conflicts and issues. They need to realize that the war has not only destroyed country’s infrastructure but also affected Afghans psychologically. They need time and support to come back to normalcy. In view of their military victory, hardliners among them would wish their leadership to rule with a strong fist. The flexibility and kindness towards their former foes, may not be a comfortable idea for them. Yet, it is in the interest of Afghanistan that Taliban remain united and focused on the new agenda, while the hardliners are also engaged. Their disintegration will be a disaster for all as it would give opportunity to miscreants to create mischief in the country, which would trickle down to neighboring countries as well. Therefore, despite it being an internal affair of Taliban, all peace-loving Afghans, neighbors and the international community need to encourage them to remain united.

The Role of Neighboring Countries

It is good to see that China, Russia and other neighboring countries are making positive overtures, though cautiously, for working with the new administration in Kabul. Collective regional initiative is now in place which remained missing in the past. Their whole hearted moves to recognize and support the new regime will certainly be in the best interest of the region. The above scenario reflects an approach and agenda for moving towards an ideal situation. Hiccups in the form of accidents as well as mischievous designs of the adversaries will keep interrupting. However, in the best interest of Afghanistan, the region and the world at large, it is the collective responsibility of all relevant internal and external elements, not just the Taliban, to play their part in achieving such a scenario.

Opportunities for Pakistan

Pakistan is prominent among the countries most affected by the post-9/11 war on terrorism. It has faced hostile attitude of the Ghani government, whereby even in the presence of foreign troops there was clear evidence of co-operation between the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies against Pakistan. In this overall context, it is natural for the Government of Pakistan and Pakistanis to be happy, hopeful and satisfied with the change in Kabul. The transformation has created a paradigm change in Pakistan’s strategic environment. New openings for mutual trade and investment, connectivity with the neighboring Central Asia, and border management as well as handling of refugee affairs are emerging. Creating an atmosphere of mutual confidence to take advantage of these opportunities is a test for the Pakistani leadership and people.

A proactive, innovative, indigenous and comprehensive approach is a prerequisite for success in this regard. However, as nothing is constant, the current scenario will also go through changes in the future. Pakistan will have to make effective and coordinated efforts to make the prospects for positive change a reality. There are certain elements in Afghanistan whose interests are now tied to Pakistan’s opposition. Likewise, in spite of the military failure, Washington and its allies will continue pursuing their goals in the region which may not necessarily be aligned with those of Pakistan. It is important to critically review the policies and actions taken in the past and adopt a fresh approach in future decision-making. Pakistan’s relationship and terms of cooperation with various governments are especially important. It needs to be reiterated that for a variety of reasons, including Pakistan’s nuclear capability, Pak-China relations, and now CPEC, Pakistan would remain a target for adversaries.

Turmoil in Afghanistan has given these forces a chance to increase pressure on Pakistan. This trend is not going to end in the future. Afghanistan and Pakistan have historically been intertwined, Their relations have been a special target during the last twenty years, With millions of refugees living in Pakistan since decades, 8/15 has provided an opportunity to think innovatively, The brain drain that started in Afghanistan in view of the strategy adopted by the exiting powers may be addressed by planning a return of qualified refugees based in Pakistan under an integrated program, Cooperation and support in the fields of food security, education, health and other social services, and an improved border management. to facilitate trade and transportation as well as people to people interactions will help achieving mutual interests and goodwill for Pakistan. TTP with patronage from the previous Afghan governments has remained an irritant. There is a need to deal with it in consultation with the new rulers in Afghanistan through dialogue.

Most importantly, in order to achieve any significant progress, governance issues need to be addressed, citing external or economic pressures as causes of our problems would not resolve them. In essence, our problems are the result of poor governance, a national policy by developing consensus through genuine institutional consultations, with all stakeholders on board, on issues and agenda of national significance is inevitable to move forward. Once a clear policy is in place, formulation of a national narrative to advance the policy and to fight the war of anti-national rhetoric under an integrated strategy is essential.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here