The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analyses and informed comments on the most significant developments in the MENA region and beyond, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we turn the spotlight on Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s rapid military advance has raised doubts about the domestic and regional implications of the US-NATO exit strategy as well as concerns about the country’s future.
On July 14th, the Taliban announced the seizure of Spin Boldak, a strategic border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is only the latest achievement within a major offensive that aims to expand the Taliban’s military control over a large part of Afghanistan’s territory. Recently, Taliban officials from Moscow claimed control of 85% of the country’s districts, a statement strongly contested by Kabul’s government in what has become an intra-Afghan propaganda war. Prior to Spin Boldak, other crucial posts along the border with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran fell under Taliban control, together with many Afghan districts that have gone down without a fight in front of their advance. With governmental forces on the run since May, the Taliban surge has particularly intensified in recent weeks, just before the remaining NATO troops completely withdraw from the war-torn country (scheduled for August 31st, 11 days prior to the previous announcement). In this framework, the capture of crucial border crossings and several districts and cities will likely mean both significant revenue for the Taliban and the strengthening of their position in future negotiations with Kabul’s government. Senior leaders from both the Afghan government and the Taliban are indeed expected to attend the intra-Afghan talks in Doha in the upcoming days, to negotiate a peaceful end to decades of war and halt the violence that has steadily increased since the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan has been announced. Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s progressive fall under Taliban control is constantly raising concerns among regional and international players for what lies ahead, especially as thousands of Afghan citizens are now trying to leave the country amid growing uncertainty about their future.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the advancing Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s plan: not an improvisation
“The Taliban winning ground means more than mere territorial control. Following US President Joe Biden’s announcement of unconditional withdrawal of US forces, they have implemented a plan which now discloses deeply strategic, financial, and political significance. In their rapid advance, the Taliban has secured control of large parts of the country, further shifting the balance of the conflict. Until now, they have shown little sign of wanting to seriously negotiate with Kabul, but external pressures increase day by day as do the population’s demands for peace and the Taliban’s need for international legitimacy. There’s still some room for diplomacy, but the Taliban has the upper hand and will use the leverage acquired on the field.”
Giuliano Battiston, Freelance Journalist and Researcher
Militias should be Kabul’s last resort
“Relying on the militias is a very dangerous gamble that could bring some relief to Ghani in the short-term, but which would ultimately lead to the end of his administration in the longer-term. The greatest concern is that these militias may contribute to the local destabilization and weakening of the legitimacy of the government and sharpen the already deep divide between tribal and ethnic factions. In this context, it is possible to foresee a sudden ethnicity-based fragmentation of the Afghan security forces with the defection of its members either to private militias or the Talibans. Such an hypothesis would trigger a new phase of the war for Afghan civilians, fuelled by the amplification of local conflicts, ultimately escalating into a wider and even more dangerous regional conflict. A very probable and impending scenario.”
Claudio Bertolotti, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
A dire scenario for the future?
“The Taliban have recently seized many of Afghanistan’s 421 districts, including strategic cities and border areas. Future Afghan governance is uncertain. Civil war could ensue. Neighbouring countries fear a large-scale refugee crisis, the spread of violence, weapons, narcotics, and extremism. Several regional powers have fortified borders. Some have brokered arrangements with the Taliban and with warlords. Within Afghanistan, violence, internal displacement, civilian casualties, and poverty have risen sharply. Fear and destitution are temporarily conducive to compliance with the Taliban, but resistance is evident in fierce local fighting and demonstrations (including armed women). Warlord capacities remain unclear. Pakistan and Iran host 90% of Afghanistan’s refugees. International recognition of shared responsibility, increased protections for IDPs, refugees and support for host countries will be critical going forward.”
Marissa Quie, Associate Lecturer, Fellow & Director of Studies HSPS at Lucy Cavendish College, College Lecturer in Politics and Director of Studies in HSPS at Magdalene College
The unattended mess left behind
“The bitter Ghani-Abdullah dispute in the 2014 presidential election bedevilled the subsequent National Unity Government. Those fissures continue to drive current political disunity in Kabul. A major adverse outcome has been political appointees that lead the security sector. These inadequacies meant that US-NATO military withdrawal had shocked the political elite and the Afghan government; they judged the US withdrawal inversely and were not ready for the Taliban onslaught. The Biden Administration has considered all scenarios in Afghanistan, including civil war or full Taliban takeover but has stuck with the withdrawal. For Biden, the imperative to end America’s so-called ‘forever war’ has been prioritised over any immediate implications for US military influence in South-Central Asia and the MENA region.”
Hameed Hakimi, Research Associate, Asia-Pacific Programme and Europe Programme, Chatham House
The Afghan issue is high on Raisi’s agenda
“As the US withdraws from Afghanistan, regional players — including Iran — have grown more involved in talking with different sides of the Afghan conflict — including the Taliban — to bring peace and stability to the country. Much like other regional and international players, Iran has accepted the Taliban as one side of the conflict and realized that bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region without the Taliban is not possible. Therefore, Iran has been negotiating with the Taliban for a few years now, and has been concerned about the future of the conflict in Afghanistan after the US’s complete withdrawal in August 2021. At the same time, Tehran also extends its relationship with the Afghan government in Kabul and constantly reiterates its support for the Afghan government. The Iranian government understands how delicate the situation is and is aware that the continuation of war and violence in Afghanistan would also pose threats, including the re-emergence of Daesh-Khorasan (ISKP) and other terrorist organizations, for Iran and the region as a whole. To sum up, I think the new administration in Iran is also interested in extending its role in Afghanistan as a neighbouring country and a key regional player to have a significant role in regional and international events in Afghanistan.”
Sayed Maisam Wahidi, PhD Fellow, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH)
Ankara’s engagement is still on the table
“Based on Turkey’s offer, a decision at the leadership level of NATO members has been made for Turkey to secure Kabul International Airport, which is key for the safe conduct of Western countries’ diplomatic and humanitarian missions beyond in Afghanistan. The main challenge now is the legal bases of such dispensation as the 29th February 2020 accord between the US and the Taliban requires the exit of all NATO troops from Afghanistan. A presidential decree by Mr Ashraf Ghani or a UN Security Council Resolution is a possible way to address the issue, but they are time-consuming and risky routes. The first requires Parliament approval in Afghanistan, while the second necessitates the five permanent states’ agreement. Both imply a risk of veto. The surest and shortest solution might be adding an addendum to the existing SOFA agreement between NATO and Afghanistan, which is under consideration. Turkey, however, should not take the Taliban’s threats to its mission seriously. More importantly, Turkey must not look at its duty in a reductionist manner – such as merely securing an airport – but must work to support the people of Afghanistan to ensure domestic consensus for the nascent peace process as well as a regional accord for its success.”
Zalmai Nishat Darayi, Research Associate, Asia Centre, University of Sussex
A threat Moscow wishes to avoid
“Although Russia has persistently called for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is alarmed by the Taliban’s expansion and ISIS’s potential resurgence. Russia has expanded its engagement with Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) bloc is mulling stabilization operations on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. While Russia opposes permanent US military installations in Central Asia and prefers to engage with Iran, China, India, and Pakistan on Afghanistan’s future, the US and Russia have held clandestine talks on Afghan security. Russia will likely refrain from military action in Afghanistan, but it could expand its security presence in Central Asia, including a second base in Kyrgyzstan, and host intra-Afghan talks to mitigate the Taliban threat.”
Samuel Ramani, DPhil Candidate in International Relations, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford
Another source of concern for China
“China is closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. While it is highly unlikely that Beijing will fill the “military vacuum” left by US withdrawal, we can expect to see growing Chinese economic engagement and reconstruction efforts in the country. In addition, since it is more worried about instability spreading to its Central Asian neighbours than a direct spill-over to China, Beijing will continue to push for closer regional cooperation within its multilateral frameworks. During Wang Yi’s meetings with his Central Asian counterparts this week, the Chinese foreign minister emphasised China’s willingness to help the Central Asian governments address their growing security concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting between the 13th and 14th of July, he once again offered to host intra-Afghan talks in China. Given China’s continued insistence on an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process, however, there is little reason to believe Beijing’s engagement in the country will grow or change significantly in the foreseeable future.”
Eva Seiwert, Researcher, Freie Universität Berlin; and Visiting Researcher, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences