Afghanistan after the US drawdown

The Afghanistan war was one of the opening salvos in a struggle that will not end with the war’s official completion.

The coming drawdown in US forces from Afghanistan won’t be the first time the country has faced a significant turning point rooted in a foreign invader’s departure. Afghanistan has known some 2,600 years of foreign invasion: outside conquerors have done a great deal to shape the country’s culture, religion, politics, and geography, and some of Afghanistan’s most critical turning points came as those invaders left the scene.


Afghanistan’s founding as a modern state grew out of the collapse of the conquering Persian Afshar dynasty led by Nadir Shah, following Nadir’s assassination in 1747. After Nadir’s own Qizilbash guards beheaded him, a young Pashtun named Ahmad Khan who worked for Nadir, did what any young man in this position might: he helped himself to all he could purloin from the slain ruler’s treasury. Thereafter Ahmad was chosen by a loya jirga to lead Afghanistan, thereby giving birth to both Afghanistan as we (roughly) know it today and also the Durrani hereditary line that would rule the country for more than two hundred years.

Another turning point came in 1842, as the British military hastily retreated at the end of the first Anglo-Afghan war. Historian and American diplomat Peter Tomsen referred to this flight, occurring in the dead of winter, as “a death march” in The Wars of Afghanistan. As the British fled, their former puppet Shah Shuja turned on his benefactors and began exhorting other Afghans to kill them. Having fooled nobody, Shah Shuja was soon murdered by his erstwhile subjects, while Dost Muhammad—the man whom the British invasion was intended to overthrow—ruled for another twenty years.

Despite the traumatic ending to this war, the British invaded again, in 1878, and then left again, in 1880. Following the second Anglo-Afghan war, an Afghan leader remained whom the British believed would be sufficiently sensitive to British interests, a strongman named Abdur Rahman Khan. Abdur Rahman, who would be the last Afghan ruler to die peacefully while still holding office, focused on centralising Afghanistan. He conquered non-Sunni areas of the country, pacifying the predominantly Shia Hazarajat and the pagan Kafiristan.

A more recent turning point precipitated by an invader’s departure came in 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces. Conventional wisdom at the time held that the remaining communist government, led by Najibullah, would soon collapse as well. Though his government lasted longer than anticipated, whatever success Najibullah’s regime might have enjoyed was dashed when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. Afghanistan soon collapsed too, into anarchy and civil war.

So as previous invaders pulled their forces from Afghanistan, they left behind a powerful empire (Ahmad Khan’s), a victorious national leader (Dost Muhammad), a centralising strongman (Abdur Rahman), and a shattered state that would become a terrorist haven. 2014 will be remembered as another key turning point. What does Afghanistan’s future hold this time around?

Afghanistan’s Stability

One thing the history of Afghanistan is littered with—in addition to, supposedly, the corpses of empires—is shattered predictions. Thus, rather than passing definitive judgment on Afghanistan’s future stability, this section explores several different scenarios, ranging from the best case to the worst.

The first of these outcomes largely falls outside the range of the possible: a highly centralised Afghan state where the central government enjoys undisputed authority throughout the country. While this outcome won’t happen as US forces draw down (and really hasn’t existed in the country’s history), it is nonetheless worth noting because the available evidence suggests that this was the U.S.’s model for Afghanistan during the early years of its oft-mismanaged war effort. Such a conception almost certainly stemmed from an insufficient appreciation for Afghanistan’s history.

A second possible outcome is the central government creating relative stability by maintaining a competent enough military to deter attacks on Kabul while utilising patronage networks to buy the loyalty—or, more likely, the non-aggression—of a variety of indigenous violent non-state actors (VNSAs). In this outcome, the central government would be the “first among equals”: it would be the most powerful of Afghanistan’s armed players, but rather than dominating the whole country, there would be an intricate system of co-sovereignty between the central government and other players.

Two other possible outcomes are far less desirable. One is a rising Taliban: the fundamentalist movement remains a significant military power as US forces draw down, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) escalates its support for the group. The Taliban becomes a dominant player in areas that have been traditional strongholds, and is also resurgent elsewhere in the country. Similar to the days before 9/11, Afghanistan begins to re-emerge as a safe haven for, and exporter of, militant Islamism.

Another worst-case scenario is descent back into civil war. In this scenario, no dominant player immediately emerges. Ethnic rivalries are paramount as Afghanistan degrades towards an anarchic war of all against all.

Currently the second of these scenarios that of relative stability, is most frequently emphasised in popular discussion. There are reasons this scenario is emphasised: among them is certainly the desire by many commentators to portray Afghanistan’s government as capable of surviving without another long commitment of US troops. What proponents of this outcome as Afghanistan’s most likely future get right is that Najibullah’s government appeared surprisingly strong for about three years in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. A January 2013 New York Times article arguing that the Soviet withdrawal is promising precedent for the US’s drawdown emphasises such Soviet policies as “continued large-scale military assistance” that accompanied its withdrawal.

But these proponents generally overlook a significant battlefield blunder by the anti-government mujahedin that helped to bolster Najibullah. In March 1989, a full fifteen thousand rebel fighters massed to attack the city of Jalalabad, and were decisively crushed by the Afghan army and a remaining force of Soviet advisors, who fired over four hundred Scud missiles during the battle. The mujahedin lost around three thousand fighters without an inch of territory to show for it. This swung momentum away from anti-government forces and toward Najibullah, who had previously been viewed as a dead man walking. Fighters attempting to overthrow a post-drawdown regime in Kabul may not blunder into their own Battle of Jalalabad. In other words, it would be foolish to discount the other, darker possibilities for Afghanistan’s future.

Al-Qaeda After the US Drawdown

The purpose of the US military engagement in Afghanistan was to deprive al-Qaeda of the safe haven it enjoyed under Taliban rule. It is thus appropriate to ask what al-Qaeda’s future is likely to be after the US drawdown.

There is currently significant debate about the state of al-Qaeda. Some observers argue that the group’s central leadership no longer enjoys real command and control over its affiliates, and that jihadism has taken on an increasingly local—as opposed to global—flavour. But the odds that the US drawdown will strengthen the jihadist group’s senior leadership are overwhelmingly high for two reasons. The first relates to targeted killings that employ unmanned aerial vehicles. For several years, the US has been able to carry out UAV strikes against al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan at a rapid pace. This situation will change with the US drawdown: UAV strikes won’t necessarily end, but they will likely be significantly reduced. Clandestine cellular non-state actors are more resilient to an attrition-based strategy than is often believed (something that Derek Jones explains at length in Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks), but the coming reduction in UAV strikes will likely affect the senior leadership in a different way. The recent pace of UAV strikes have clearly succeeded in containing al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, making it more dangerous and difficult for the group to operate openly.

Not only will this dynamic change, but also terrorist plots emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region will grow harder to catch as the US’s human intelligence capabilities in that theater decline. When an al-Qaeda plot to carry out multiple  urban warfare attacks in Europe was disrupted in October 2010, Western countries didn’t learn of it through either their signals-intelligence capability or police work in Europe, but through the in-theater arrest of an operative: Ahmed Sidiqi, an Afghan German who was part of a jihadist cluster from Hamburg that relocated to Pakistan’s tribal areas. As CNN reported, Sidiqi had been detained in Kabul in July 2010, after which he “revealed details about the al-Qaeda plot against Europe while under interrogation at the US airbase at Bagram, Afghanistan.” It will be more difficult, following the drawdown, for information to make its way to Western countries in that manner.

The net result will be increased vibrancy of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. As it grows stronger and less contained, the current discussion of al-Qaeda as a decentralized and localized organization is bound to recede.

Afghanistan-Pakistan relations

Michael Hart, the Royal Air Force’s former director of defense studies, observed in 2012: “Like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. The looming cessation of full Western military engagement will precipitate intensified encroachment of Afghanistan’s neighbors on the Afghan polity, economy, society and, in some cases, the insurgency.” This section explores a couple of Afghanistan’s neighbours—Pakistan and China—who may play a role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.

Pakistan. The neighbor best positioned to sweep in and play a major role as the US draws down is Pakistan, which has been extraordinarily active in Afghanistan since even before the Afghan-Soviet war.

Understanding Pakistan’s engagement in Afghanistan requires  some knowledge of the tortured relationship between the two countries. Afghanistan’s eastern border was settled in 1893, by the aforementioned Abdur Rahman. As noted, he centralised much of the country by force, and relied on British subsidies to fuel his war efforts. As such, Britain had the leverage necessary to make the amir agree to the Durand Line that finally demarcated the border between Afghanistan and British India. This border split up Afghanistan’s powerful Pashtun ethnic group: as James Spain, a former cultural affairs officer at the American embassy in Karachi, wrote in 1954, the Durand Line left “half of a people intimately related by culture, history, and blood on either side.”

This border created a grievance that for decades drove Afghanistan’s hostility toward Pakistan. Immediately after Pakistan gained its independence in August 1947, Afghanistan demanded that Pakistan should allow the Pashtuns in the northwestern part of its country to—if they chose—secede and become an independent state. These demands were in fact irredentist, because if Pashtunistan came to exist, it wouldn’t remain independent for long. The historical linkage between the Pashtuns and Afghanistan would likely mean that Pashtunistan would become a part of Afghanistan. Afghanistan often included majority-Baluch areas in these Pashtunistan demands: If the Baluchis became a part of Afghanistan too, then Afghanistan would regain access to the Arabian Sea (something that it enjoyed during the height of Ahmad Khan’s rule).

Afghanistan’s demands were not just rhetorical, but included violent skirmishes that Afghanistan invariably initiated. These included cross-border raids into Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province in 1949-50; a series of incidents in 1955 where Afghan demonstrators sacked Pakistani diplomatic outposts in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad; and a deep crisis in 1960-61 after Afghan irregular forces penetrated Pakistani territory, and Pakistan responded with the repeated use of aerial bombardment. But the situation further escalated in 1973, when Mohammed Daoud Khan executed a coup and captured power in Afghanistan.

Daoud was an ardent supporter of Pashtunistan, and referred to the border dispute almost immediately upon assuming power. Daoud’s regime provided sanctuary, arms, and ammunition to Pashtun and Baluch nationalist groups. Even as Daoud fomented ethnic insurgency inside Pakistan, his regime condemned the Pakistani state before the United Nations as “genocidal” in its treatment of ethnic minorities. Compounding the challenge, this escalation came when Pakistan had already lost nearly a third of its territory, as East Pakistan seceded in 1971 and became Bangladesh. Rizwan Hussain, a research scholar at The Australian National University, wrote that Afghanistan’s actions “posed the greatest threat to Pakistan’s integrity since the secession of East Pakistan.” Obviously, this called for a response.

Pakistani president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto fashioned a two-pronged answer. One part was suppressing nationalist uprisings in Pakistan’s Frontier. The second part was a “forward policy” that supported violent Islamist factions inside Afghanistan. Several rationales drove this forward policy: among them, Pakistan believed groups whose primary identification was religious might be less likely to support ethno-nationalist demands of the kind that drove Afghanistan’s Pashtunistan policy, while at the same time these groups were more likely to be hostile to Pakistan’s archenemy, India.

Thus, Pakistan’s initial support for violent Islamist groups in Afghanistan was spurred directly by the Afghan government’s sponsorship of separatist groups in Pakistan. Pakistan’s support for such groups of course grew during the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, and during the Taliban’s rise and rule in the 1990s. And, despite then-president Pervez Musharraf’s assurances to the contrary, Pakistan continued to support these Islamist VNSAs even after the 9/11 attacks. It was in fact foreseeable when Musharraf promised that Pakistan would stop supporting jihadist groups that the change of direction wouldn’t stick: Pakistan had been too strategically invested in supporting jihadist groups, and too many relationships had developed between ISI officers and militants. Even if Pakistan’s civilian government were absolutely sincere in its desire to change course, the non-unified nature of the Pakistani state would make it difficult to simply abandon these old alliances.

There are several alternative futures with respect to Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan. The most benign possibility is worth mentioning but won’t happen: principled non-interference by Pakistan in a manner that largely respects Afghanistan’s sovereignty. The reason this is worth mentioning is because, like a centralized Afghan state, American planners invested heavily in this alternative in the early days of the Afghanistan war. After Pakistan made early post-9/11 concessions, with Musharraf announcing the ban of five jihadist groups, the US in turn routed its supplies for the Afghanistan war through Pakistani territory. By the time Pakistan’s support for the insurgency became undeniable, it was too late: taking serious action against it would jeopardize the US’s supply routes. When America eventually tried to establish the Northern Distribution Network, which would provide alternative supply lines, it was too late: Pakistan had already indelibly damaged the war effort.

A second possibility for Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan is that the Afghan central government is so weakened that Pakistan finds propping it up to be the most advantageous move. Pakistan may believe that in this weak state, Afghanistan’s central government is likely to be quite amenable to Pakistani interests. Other possibilities involve Pakistan supporting VNSAs in Afghanistan. Given Pakistan’s heavy investment in the Taliban and its predecessors, its support for these armed actors—which has never ended—may escalate.

The wild card is the possibility that the Pakistani state could collapse. Pakistan already has multiple competing centers of power, and there are reasons to think it might simply implode: Pakistan suffers from rising food prices, rising energy prices, state incapacity, and internal insurgencies. While most analysts assume that Pakistan will be the stronger player ten years down the line, continuing to interfere in Afghanistan, in a decade Pakistan could instead be torn apart by its internal challenges.

China. China has adopted a mercantilist foreign policy designed to ensure access to natural resources. Its interests in Afghanistan are primarily economic, but China also has concerns about Islamist VNSAs—particularly in light of the recent attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, for which the Uighur separatist Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has claimed credit. One particularly interesting aspect of Chinese policies toward Afghanistan is that they may be a harbinger of the country’s evolving global policies: China has invested in a variety of commercial projects in Afghanistan while enjoying a hidden subsidy in the form of US military efforts to build stability on the ground, and as US forces draw down, China will be forced to decide how best to defend these investments. Whether evolving circumstances will alter China’s established policy of avoiding military interference in other countries remains to be seen.

In terms of Chinese commercial interests in Afghanistan, it has been a favorite for securing mineral development rights. As Tiffany Ng has pointed out, China’s state-led economic system gives it a unique advantage because many of its firms enjoy “a degree of insulation from market risks” that can change “the perception of risk itself.” For example, China won the rights to develop a copper mine in Logar Province’s Mes Aynak. Ng’s explanation of the difficulties associated with the project demonstrate why more risk-sensitive Western corporations probably couldn’t undertake such an endeavor:

Large-scale mining operations take an average of 7–10 years to become profitable under the best of circumstances, and can take as long as two decades, given the complex and expensive process of tunneling, blasting, processing, and transporting the minerals.

To succeed, mining projects require ready access to plentiful water, reliable electricity, and an extensive logistics network including roads, railways, and maintenance facilities, none of which is in ready supply in Afghanistan. Add to this the remote location of the Afghan mineral deposits and the volatile security situation surrounding them, and mining becomes even more difficult.

China is also involved in developing Afghanistan’s largely unexploited oil and gas reserves. In 2011, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Amu Darya Basin provinces in Afghanistan’s north contained 962 million barrels of crude oil, 52 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 582 million barrels of natural gas liquids. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a state-owned firm, won an oil exploration contract for Amu Darya in December 2011. China clearly hopes that this investment provides a “foot in the door” that will allow it to win further energy concessions in the area.

With the US drawdown, how will China adapt to protect its investments in Afghanistan? China is also asking similar questions about Uighur separatist groups, such as the aforementioned TIP, since militant Uighur groups were able to exploit the pre-9/11 safe haven that the Taliban offered inside of Afghanistan.

It’s possible that China will simply end up using patronage networks, buying off local warlords who might threaten the security of its commercial facilities, or striking a deal with militant groups to incentivize them not to assist Uighur groups. Evidence suggests that China has done exactly this with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum to prevent his interference in its Amu Darya energy projects. But the question remains whether patronage will be sufficient, or whether China will feel that it is forced to increase its security presence.


Afghanistan ended up a forerunner of the major trends that would shape the national-security environment in the early twenty-first century. The various factors that make VNSAs a defining player on the world stage haven’t reversed: if anything, they have accelerated. Massive technological changes continue to alter the balance of power between state and non-state actors, while both economic and ecological challenges mount.

Over the past several years, analysts have been blindsided time and again by unforeseen developments. The 9/11 attacks were an unforeseen development, even though the rise of al-Qaeda as a significant threat to the US should have been well understood. The theft of classified information on the scale undertaken by both Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden also represented an unforeseen development, even though the structural changes that enabled this development should have been understood.

States and non-state actors will continue to wrangle for an upper hand. The Afghanistan war was one of the opening salvos in a struggle that will not end with the war’s official completion. Analysts would do well to carefully consider the implications of the US drawdown—but current narratives embraced by this community of thinkers suggest that they may be setting themselves up to be blindsided again.

Photo: The U.S Army