6 October 2011
Stuart Gordan

Dr Stuart Gordon

Associate Fellow, Centre on Global Health Security


Ten years into the West's war in Afghanistan we know the end date, December 2014, but we are unclear about the 'end state' both for Afghanistan and for the region's stability. 

There have been tactical successes resulting from the troop surge in the south, where ISAF has made real progress in degrading the middle ranking leadership of the Taliban, and Helmand, for long the cauldron of the war, has seen fragile but impressive improvement in its security and governance arrangements. But the Obama administration has struggled to develop a coherent strategy for the next three years and the big 'strategic' questions remain unresolved.

The US administration should look carefully at the record of former Afghan President Najibullah in sustaining his regime for nearly three years after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. He proved remarkably adept at retaining power through manipulating the differences between the various squabbling Mujahidin groups, deploying a strengthened and reinvigorated military in large numbers, and buying support through considerable patronage payments financed by the Soviets. Only when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to these resources did his regime implode and the country descend into civil war.

In many ways the US strategy emulates Najibullah's approach. The military surge is intended to create the space for the growth of the Afghan security forces and the ramping up of development programmes to sustain the legitimacy of the state. However, the strategy assumes that the (primarily) US resources underpinning President Karzai's administration will be sufficient to prop up its military and sustain its legitimacy. It also presumes the insurgency will be sufficiently weak and divided for Karzai to bribe or beat them into some form of settlement. Neither of these assumptions is water-tight. 

It is questionable whether the US has both the wealth and patience to bankroll Hamid Karzai in the face of a combination of the global recession, Karzai's squandering of political legitimacy and his marriages of convenience with warlords, and the chronic corruption at all levels of government. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the third most corrupt state in 2010 making it an infertile ground for development spending at a time when government budgets around the world are increasingly squeezed.

Strategic Rivalries

Pakistan also poses a far greater threat to Kabul than it did even in the 1990s. The promise of a US withdrawal risks encouraging Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), to increase its support for radical Islamist groups, thereby increasing the possibility of a second Taliban revolution and further destabilizing the region as a whole.

For decades, Pakistan has considered Afghanistan's geography as 'strategic depth' and has cultivated Pashtuns as a buffer in containing Soviet and Indian influence. Following the Soviet withdrawal Pakistan continued to actively support radical Islamist groups including both the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i Islami.

Strategic rivalry with India continues to shape much of Pakistan's current foreign and security policy in ways that serve to undermine President Karzai and strengthen the Taliban. Pakistan's ISI consider Karzai's administration to be too close to India; containing too few Pashtuns and too many Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. During the Civil War these ethnic groups formed the Northern Alliance and obtained considerable support from India; raising the spectre of strategic encirclement by the allies of Pakistan's bitterest enemy. Pakistani officials also fear that Karzai's talks with the Afghan Taliban will side-line those Pashtuns with links to the ISI; partly explaining why the ISI have arrested Taliban leaders, such as Mullah Baradur, who were willing to negotiate with Karzai.

Pakistan's obsession with increasing Pashtun influence and resisting strategic encirclement is likely to have serious consequences both for Afghanistan's future stability and in terms of Pakistan's relations with India. Robert Kaplan warns that 'an Afghanistan that falls under Taliban sway would be, in effect, a greater Pakistan, giving Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate [ISI] the ability to create a clandestine empire composed of the likes of Jallaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Lashkar-e-Taiba.' This raises the risk of a significant increase in the scale and frequency of Islamist attacks across India, with potentially serious consequences for the stability of the region as a whole.

Taliban Influence

If the US withdrawal led to the return of the Taliban it would obviously have serious consequences for other regional relationships, Afghan stability and the US role in the region. 

Russia, India and Iran have strong reasons to collaborate in resisting Taliban influence and this is likely to have wider impact in curbing US attempts to build support for containing Iranian influence and halting its nuclear weapons programme. 

Afghanistan's wars and weaknesses have also provided its neighbours with opportunities to destabilize Afghanistan further through support to their own proxy forces. Iran has traditionally supported Abdul Ali Mazari's Hezb-i Wahdat and Saudi Arabia the Ittehad-i Islami of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf while Afghanistan's northern neighbor Uzbekistan has financed General Dostum's Junbish-i Milli. Robert Kaplan warns that a precipitate US withdrawal from Afghanistan 'would signal to Indian policy elites that the United States is surely a declining power on which they cannot depend. Détente with China might then seem to be in India’s interest.'

End in Sight?

President Obama has struggled to convince the insurgents as well as Afghan and Pakistani government officials that US commitments will not decline sharply before December 2014. Much needs to be done to strengthen the Afghan state to build the capacity of both the Afghan Army and Police. But much also needs to be done to convince Pakistan's political elite to dilute the ISI's malign influence over the Afghan insurgency, and to support a less toxic regional security strategy.