The Taliban and the Post-NATO Afghan State

4 MINS READAug 30, 2012 | 07:01 GMT

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has undertaken a major reshuffle of his Cabinet, according to media reports surfacing Wednesday. He has reportedly appointed a new intelligence chief and a new head of the election commission. The ministries of interior, defense, finance and tribal and border affairs will also have new leaders. A close look at the changes, however, reveals that Karzai has merely moved the incumbents to less visible posts and replaced them with other loyalists.

This reshuffle comes roughly two years before the expected withdrawal of U.S.-led Western military forces from Afghanistan. The NATO drawdown has the international community wondering about the fate of the state that was crafted by Washington and its allies a little more than a decade ago, after the Taliban regime fell following 9/11. Karzai has been the only leader of the post-Taliban Afghan state; his second five-year term ends around the same time NATO troops are scheduled to withdraw.

As Afghanistan elects a new president in 2014, the country's security forces will be left to defend the state against a Taliban-led jihadist insurgency that an approximately 100,000-strong NATO force has not been able to control. The scenario is similar to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 after they tried to support a Marxist stratocracy facing an Islamist insurgency backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The expectation at that time was that the government of former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah would collapse soon after Soviet troops left, especially since the government's opponents had international support. However, Najibullah's weak government held out for three years against the forces of a seven-party Afghan Islamist alliance aided by fighters from across the Islamic world. In fact, Islamist rebels were able to topple the Najibullah regime only after the defection of Gen. Abdul-Rashid Dostum in April 1992. 

If the Marxist regime, reviled by millions of its citizens and facing a large insurgent coalition, wasn't easily toppled after the departure of Soviet forces, then it is reasonable to assume that post-NATO Afghanistan, which will continue to have substantial international backing, won't be easily toppled by Taliban insurgents. It should also be kept in mind that when the Taliban last came to power, Afghanistan was experiencing anarchy after nearly two decades of civil war. In contrast, today there is a functioning state with institutions and a large number of security forces.

Afghanistan has, of course, benefited until now from the assistance of tens of thousands of American and NATO forces. But the Taliban have not demonstrated any serious capability of holding territory beyond their core in the eastern and southern parts of the country. They have been able to stage attacks, but that is very different from amassing a large force to dismantle the incumbent state.  

Therefore, what will most likely happen in the aftermath of the Western military pullout is a long period of civil war between Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces. The Taliban realize that this isn't the 1990s, when they were able to make use of the vacuum and force their way into Kabul within two years. They realize that this time around the cost of fighting their way into power will be very high.

This is why the Taliban are negotiating with the United States to try to emerge as a major stakeholder in any post-NATO power-sharing arrangement. It is not clear that these talks will succeed. The key stumbling block is that while the United States and its Afghan partners are willing to incorporate the Taliban into the existing political system, the Taliban want to construct an altogether new state.

The Karzai-led state faces an uncertain future. For now, Afghanistan is grappling with its own internal issues and struggling to prepare for the day when it will not have a large contingent of U.S. and NATO forces defending it.

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