As the Afghan end game gets closer, major stakeholders continue to jockey for position. US policymakers are conscious of the country's weak bargaining position in Afghanistan. The fragility of the US position was highlighted in a recent article in the US Armed Forces Journal.
"Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.
Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level."
Lt. Col. Daniell L. Davis, "Truth, Lies and Afghanistan." Armed Forces Journal, February 2012.
Not surprisingly, US pressure on Pakistan increases almost in proportion to US failures in achieving its objectives in Afghanistan. After all, there is no better scapegoat than blaming a discredited and weak nation: Pakistan, Bin Laden's host of many years.
|The Afghan National Army (ANA) - more than just a ceremonial force?|
So what happens after US forces leave and a 'free, independent and non-occupied' Afghanistan fends for itself? Karzai and his coterie of officials maintain their hold on power; the Taliban retakes power; the Taliban and the Northern Alliance reach a political compromise; or the country descends into chaos.
Karzai retains power
Karzai was a compromise leader foisted on the Afghans following the Taliban's fall. Karzai's two greatest strengths for the presidential position were being an ethnic Pashtun and not having his own political constituency. (Pashtuns form the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan.)
Without support from US and NATO forces, Karzai's ability to dispense largesse will erode over time. Neither will he be able to rely upon the Afghan National Army (ANA) to shore up his position.
Karzai's days will be numbered following the withdrawal of international troops. Karzai's best course of action will be to make sure his passport is valid for the next few years, preferably containing a valid visa for the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Returning to his former 'home in exile,' i.e. Quetta, Pakistan, will not be possible.
The Taliban Return to Power
The Taliban retains much popular support from segments of the Pashtun community, especially in the Southeast of the country. However, the war has damaged the Taliban's military capabilities and organizational infrastructure.
Most importantly, future patronage from the Pakistani security establishment will at best be lukewarm. The reason: Pakistan's military is rightfully concerned about increasing the strength of the Taliban's Pakistani offshoot, the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban.
Without active Pakistani support it is unlikely the Taliban can militarily subdue Afghanistan, such as during its 1996-2001 regime. However, Pakistan's attitude towards the Taliban will ultimately be determined by the level of US and Indian activity in a post Karzai Afghanistan.
Many western analysts might suggest a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is imminent following America's departure. However, the likelihood of such an occurrence is low.
A coalition between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance
These two political groupings – it is difficult to call the Taliban and Northern Alliance anything more than groups - represent the largest two indigenous forces on the Afghan political horizon. To be sure, other personalities like Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum or Herati Tajik Ismail Khan will play a supporting role in any future political structure. But, in all probability, the minor cast members will take pick a side between the two larger forces.
|Afghan school children|
A descent to pre-Taliban chaos
A 'legitimate' successor to Karzai may rule Kabul for some years. The same way Najibullah lasted following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The same ruler may also claim nominal sovereignty over the rest of Afghanistan. However, any such ruler's power will likely not extend beyond Kabul's presidential palace.
By the end of this decade, the probability of Afghanistan becoming a nation of regional fiefdoms controlled by various leaders (aka warlords) is high. In this scenario, Pakistan will be happy to secure a sphere of influence in the regions near its North-western border. Likewise, Iran will attempt to maintain its influence in Western Afghanistan while the Central Asian Republics will dominate provinces along its borders. Meanwhile, the US and India will try hard to preserve the Northern Alliance as an effective counterbalance to the Taliban.
To what extent these outside countries are successful in pursuing their own narrow agendas – and at what cost to Afghanistan – is open to debate.
After ten years of war, US authorities are loathe to admit that a bunch of 'rag tag' militants, i.e. the Taliban, remain a viable political and military force in Afghanistan. While the Taliban cannot take over Kabul within weeks of a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban will certainly not make life easy for Karzai's regime.
|A female contingent of the Pakistan Army at a recent parade|