Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989; the Marxist regime Moscow had been supporting fell in 1992. The Taliban seized control of Kabul — and most of Afghanistan — in 1996. Will a similar progression occur in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the U.S. and Coalition forces planned to be completed by the end of 2014? Will the Afghan government that the United States and its allies have been supporting also fall? And will the Taliban once again seize control of most of Afghanistan — or even all of it?
These questions, of course, cannot be answered definitively. Indeed, the answers may not become clear for several years after the withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces from Afghanistan. It may be possible, though, to begin addressing these questions by identifying the factors that aided the Taliban in its initial rise to power in 1996, and then examining the extent to which they are likely to be present after the U.S. and Coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Factors Aiding the Taliban’s Rise to Power in 1996
There were six factors that aided the Taliban’s seizure of the Afghan capital, Kabul, approximately seven years and eight months after the completion of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan: (1) the downfall of the government the Soviets had left behind in Kabul; (2) Pushtun resentment that the regime replacing the government was dominated by non-Pushtuns; (3) large-scale external assistance to the Taliban, especially from Pakistan; (4) chronic divisions among the non-Pushtuns, including between and within ethnic groups; (5) popular fatigue with the constant conflict following the Soviet departure — resulting in some popular appeal for the Taliban’s brand of stability; and (6) limited external assistance to non-Pushtun forces (especially after the collapse of the USSR in December 1991).
(1) The Downfall of the Government Moscow Left Behind
The Afghan Marxist regime, led by Najibullah, was widely disliked throughout Afghanistan, yet it survived for over three years after the completion of the Soviet withdrawal. This was partly because the Pakistani-backed mujahideen groups quickly discredited themselves, as a result of their ineptitude and cruelty. But it was also partly due to the Najibullah regime’s continuing to receive large-scale Soviet military and economic assistance for almost three years following the Soviet troop withdrawal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, however, the new Russian government led by Boris Yeltsin ended all support to the Najibullah regime in January 1992. This, and the defection of one of his key supporters to the opposition, contributed greatly to the fall of the Najibullah regime in April 1992.
(2) Pushtun Resentment of the Non-Pushtun-dominated Regime that Arose in 1992
The April 1992 downfall of the Afghan Marxist regime that Moscow had previously backed did not result in the immediate rise of the Taliban or any other predominantly Pushtun group. Indeed, the new “Islamic State of Afghanistan” was dominated by Tajik and Uzbek leaders. But as renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid observed in his book Taliban,
With the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 there followed a long struggle against the regime of President Najibullah until he was overthrown in 1992 and the Mujaheddin captured Kabul. Much of Afghanistan’s subsequent civil war was to be determined by the fact that Kabul fell, not to the well-armed and bickering Pashtun parties based in Peshawar, but to the better organized and more united Tajik forces of Burhanuddin Rabani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Masud and to the Uzbek forces from the north under General Rashid Dostum. It was a devastating psychological blow because for the first time in 300 years the Pashtuns had lost control of the capital. An internal civil war began almost immediately….1
(3) Large-Scale External Assistance to the Taliban
Although it sought to project an image of itself as an indigenous Afghan movement, the Taliban began receiving assistance early on from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and a Pakistani Islamist group, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI). In addition to the weaponry it captured, the Taliban reportedly received tanks, artillery and even aircraft from Pakistan — as well as training and logistics support. As Sir Martin Ewans noted in his book Afghanistan, about the rise of the Taliban in 1993-96,
While there were undoubtedly former members of the Afghan armed forces among their numbers, the speed and sophistication with which their offensives were conducted, together with the quality of their communications, air support and artillery bombardments, led to the inescapable conclusion that they must have owed much to a Pakistani military presence, or at least their professional support.
There can also be little doubt that financial support from Saudi Arabia was instrumental in the Taliban’s rise to power.2
(4) Chronic Divisions among the Non-Pushtuns
One of the key factors leading to the downfall of the Najibullah regime in April 1992 was the defection to the opposition of someone who had been one of his important supporters, the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Although northerners dominated the Islamic State of Afghanistan that ruled from Kabul, 1992-96, there was chronic division among many of the leading non-Pushtun figures — some of whom even allied with various Pushtuns, even if only temporarily. As Sir Martin Ewans put it, “The first three years of mujahidin rule, if it could be called that, were characterized by the total inability of its leaders to agree among themselves on any lasting political settlement and their readiness to fight one another at the slightest provocation, or without any apparent provocation at all.”3 Because the non-Pushtuns were so divided, the Taliban did not face a unified Afghan national army, but a number of militias that opposed one another as well as the Taliban.
There were, of course, also serious divisions among the various Pushtun-dominated mujahideen groups based in Pakistan both during the Soviet occupation and afterward. Indeed, part of Pakistan’s motivation for supporting the Taliban was to nurture a Pushtun-dominated group that was both amenable to Pakistani influence and able to overcome intra-Pushtun differences.
(5) Combat Fatigue Following the Soviet Departure
Because of its many internecine conflicts, the non-Pushtun-dominated Islamic State of Afghanistan was unable to bring peace and stability to the country during its brief period in office. Many Pushtuns, in particular, came to regard Taliban rule as preferable to the Islamic State based in Kabul. Although Taliban rule was harsh, many Pushtuns preferred its order to chaos. As, once again, Sir Martin Ewans put it: “From the outset, the Taliban struck a chord with the war-weary populace. Having captured Kandahar, they brought the endemic criminality and factionalism there to a speedy end. Local leaders were shot or imprisoned; guns were impounded; roadblocks were demolished; the city was cleaned up and life improved.” Of course, the Afghan population, especially the non-Pushtuns, would not become familiar with just how harsh the Taliban could be until they captured Kabul in 1996 and ruled over most of Afghanistan until the U.S.-led Coalition ousted them in late 2001.
(6) Limited External Assistance to Non-Pushtun Forces
While the Taliban received substantial external assistance from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during its rise to power, their non-Pushtun opponents did not. As noted earlier, Moscow did provide substantial assistance to Afghanistan’s Marxist regime between the departure of Soviet forces in January 1989 and the downfall of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The Russian government of President Boris Yeltsin, though, ended this aid abruptly in January 1992. After that, neither the Najibullah government, which fell in April 1992, nor the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which lasted from April 1992 to September 1996, received much external support. Some outside aid did go to various Northern Alliance factions: Iran supported Shia groups in western Afghanistan, and the Russians supported the Tajik warlord, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who had previously fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan so bitterly and effectively. Indeed, Massoud was able to prevent the Taliban from overrunning the last Northern Alliance stronghold in northeastern Afghanistan until the U.S.-led intervention began in October 2001. No significant American or Western assistance, of course, went to the Najibullah regime in its final months, the Islamic State of Afghanistan while it held Kabul, nor the Northern Alliance between the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul and the 9/11 attacks. Since the Taliban received significant external support while its opponents did not, it is hardly surprising that the former were able to overrun most of Afghanistan.
Will the Taliban Rise Again?
Will history repeat itself? Are the Taliban likely to overrun Afghanistan again following the completion of the U.S. and Coalition-force withdrawal at the end of 2014? What is the time frame within which the attempt by the Taliban to do so (which they will surely make) might unfold? To address these questions, an assessment will be offered of the importance of each of the six factors identified as aiding the Taliban’s previous rise to power.
(1) Will the Karzai Government Fall?
Notwithstanding doubts about the validity of his re-election as president in 2009, the incumbent government of Hamid Karzai is highly likely to be the one in place as the U.S./Coalition military presence winds down in 2014. Although not supposed to run for a third term under the current Afghan constitution, Kharzai might succeed in getting the Parliament either to amend it to allow him to run again in 2014 or declare a state of emergency and extend his term of office, perhaps indefinitely.
Although highly unpopular, the Najibullah government survived for over three years after the Soviet withdrawal was completed. This was partly due to large-scale Soviet military and economic assistance, which continued until the beginning of January 1992. Once aid from Moscow ceased, the Najibullah government soon fell.
The Karzai government is also unpopular, even now, and may not become any more so between now and the end of 2014. The Najibullah experience, though, suggests that it too may survive the withdrawal of external forces so long as large-scale external assistance continues. But while external support can enable an unpopular authoritarian regime to remain in power, it may not prevent it from falling eventually — as has recently occurred in Egypt. If Karzai does not run for re-election in 2014 but, instead presides over a free and fair electoral process, he might help establish a more popular government that Afghans see as more legitimate. The withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces from Afghanistan between mid-2011 and the end of 2014, though, will mean that in America and its allies will be even less able to bring about this result than they were with a large military presence.
On the other hand, just as the fall of Najibullah was not followed immediately by the rise of the Taliban, the fall of the Karzai government might not be either. Najibullah was also undermined by some of his erstwhile supporters turning against him, and Karzai too may be undermined by some of his. Indeed, there is a strong possibility that the non-Pushtuns who dominate the Afghan army might well depose Karzai (a Pushtun who is generally unpopular with the non-Pushtuns), especially after the completion of the U.S./Coalition withdrawal. If this occurs, America and some of its partners (particularly NATO members, Russia and India) will have to decide whether they are willing to support a new Afghan government that has ousted Karzai but is willing to resist the Taliban. The post-Najibullah experience suggests that, if external support is not forthcoming, any such government may be unable to resist the Taliban for long.
(2) Will Pushtuns Oppose Karzai or Any Non-Pushtun Successor?
Pushtuns strongly opposed the Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992-96) that was dominated by non-Pushtuns, even though it was an anti-Marxist Islamic government. Ethnicity was far more important than ideology for them. If experience is any guide to the future, Pushtuns may also oppose any government succeeding Karzai that is also dominated by non-Pushtuns.
Merely being a Pushtun, though, has not resulted in Karzai’s being popular among his fellow Pushtuns. Even now, he is widely regarded by them as being too dependent on foreigners as well as non-Pushtuns to sustain his rule. Even after the U.S. and Coalition withdrawal, his dependence on both foreigners and non-Pushtuns is likely to continue. If this is the case, Pushtun sympathy for — or at least, lack of opposition to — the Taliban may well continue.
Karzai, though, has on various occasions threatened to “join the Taliban” either in response to the deaths of Afghan civilians in U.S./NATO bombing raids or to pressure from America and its Coalition partners to initiate serious political reform. It is uncertain whether Karzai would seriously consider such a move, or whether he is engaging in rhetoric. It is possible, of course, that an attempt by Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban would be regarded favorably by Pushtuns in Afghanistan. Such a move, though, is highly likely to be regarded so unfavorably by non-Pushtuns that they might well rebel against him.
This points to the real problem Afghanistan faces, both now and after the U.S./Coalition force withdrawal: there may not be a leader who can attract the respect and loyalty of both Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns. Karzai himself, unfortunately, has been unable to do this up to now, and seems highly unlikely to develop the ability to do so in the future. Unless a serious competitor for the loyalty of the Afghan Pushtuns emerges, many in this community may continue to regard the Taliban as their champion in the ongoing struggle against both non-Pushtuns and foreign influence.
(3) Will the Taliban Continue to Receive External Assistance?
The Taliban have received support from elements within the Pakistani intelligence and security services in the past, appear to receive their support at present, and thus appear highly likely to continue receiving Pakistani support after the completion of the U.S. and Coalition withdrawal and the end of 2014.
The Pakistani intelligence and security services are focused primarily on Pakistan’s decades-old rivalry with India. This rivalry, of course, will undoubtedly continue long after U.S. and Coalition military forces withdraw from Afghanistan. What the Pakistani intelligence and security leadership fear is that India will somehow become the predominant external power in Afghanistan, allowing New Delhi the opportunity to tighten its grip on Pakistan from both the east and the west.
Islamabad sees the non-Pushtuns in Afghanistan as willing to cooperate with India and, hence, as anti-Pakistani. Although a Pushtun himself, President Karzai has been highly critical of Pakistan and has castigated it for supporting the Taliban on several occasions. The Pakistani leadership, then, does not see any potential Afghan ally for Islamabad other than the Taliban. Thus, whatever qualms Islamabad may have, it is likely to continue supporting the Taliban for what the Pakistani intelligence and security services regard as defensive reasons vis-à-vis India.
(4) Will There Be Serious Divisions among the Non-Pushtuns?
This is a question that cannot be answered definitively in advance, but the record is not promising. While opposed to the Taliban and to Pushtun domination, the major non-Pushtun groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) have shown a dismaying tendency to quarrel among themselves. Perhaps the memory of how the Taliban took advantage of this to seize Kabul in 1996 and overrun most of Afghanistan afterward will serve to deter them from such counterproductive behavior and prompt a focus on fighting the common Taliban enemy instead. Otherwise, disputes among the non-Pushtuns may once again aid the Taliban in the effort to retake control of Afghanistan that is highly likely to be launched after the completion of the U.S. and Coalition military withdrawal.
(5) Will Combat Fatigue Aid the Taliban after the U.S./Coalition Withdrawal?
The order and stability, albeit harsh, that the Taliban promised may have seemed preferable to continued conflict to many Afghans in the mid-1990s, especially those who had not yet experienced its rule. But, while Afghans may now be even more fatigued by continued conflict, they can have no illusions this time about life under Taliban rule. Non-Pushtuns in particular — especially those who made opportunistic alliances with the Taliban in the mid-1990s that they later came to regret — have a strong incentive to prevent the Taliban from coming to rule over them again. And as the cooperation of some Pushtun forces with the U.S.-led intervention against the Taliban from October to December 2001 demonstrated, the Taliban are perfectly capable of generating opposition from Pushtuns also.
(6) Will the Anti-Taliban Forces Receive External Support?
Whether and to what extent this will occur cannot be foretold. The amount of external assistance to Afghan forces resisting the Taliban, though, has the potential for being much greater than what they received in the 1990s. As noted earlier, the Soviets continued to give large-scale military and economic assistance to the Marxist regime in Kabul between the completion of their troop withdrawal in early 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Under Yeltsin, though, aid from Moscow to Kabul abruptly ended in January 1992, and the regime fell the following April. Later, both Russia and Iran provided some aid to the Northern Alliance resisting the Taliban in the late 1990s. The United States and its Western allies, though, did not provide any support to anti-Taliban forces. From 1989 to 1991, Washington, which apparently did not anticipate the rise of an anti-American regime in Afghanistan, urged Moscow to halt its military assistance to Kabul.
After the completion of its planned 2014 troop withdrawal the United States could, unlike Moscow did, continue to provide large-scale military and economic assistance to Kabul indefinitely. Others — especially Russia and India — might do so anyway; they might be inclined to provide even more if the United States did so. America’s Coalition partners in Afghanistan might also contribute to this effort. If what happened in 1989-91 is any guide, the continued supply of military and economic assistance from abroad could play a crucial role in maintaining the hold of the Kabul government (whether under Karzai or a successor) over the capital and the non-Pushtun regions of the country. Just doing this will put the Kabul government in a better position to exploit any differences between the Taliban and their Pakistani backers, on the one hand, and Pushtuns opposed to them, on the other, if and when they arise.
Will the Taliban overrun Afghanistan again following the completion of the U.S./Coalition troop withdrawal in 2014? Factors likely to help the Taliban’s attempt to do so are the continuation of hostility between Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns, continued Pakistani assistance to the Taliban, and any divisions among the non-Pushtuns that might emerge. On the other hand, there are also factors that could serve to impede the Taliban from overrunning Afghanistan again: popular disillusionment with the Taliban (especially among non-Pushtuns) and continued external assistance to the forces resisting them. Whether the Afghan government continues to be led by Hamid Karzai, by a successor under the current government, or by a different government may be less important than that there be a government in Kabul capable of effectively opposing the Taliban. The extent to which this government receives external assistance will play a major role in determining its success. Just because a government receives even large-scale external assistance, of course, does not mean that it can make effective use of it, especially if it is incompetent and corrupt. But even a competent and effective government that is receiving little or no external assistance will face great difficulty battling a determined opponent backed by generous foreign support.
In addition to continuing to support anti-Taliban forces inside Afghanistan after the U.S./Coalition troop withdrawal, perhaps the single most important step that the United States and its partners could take to weaken the Taliban is to somehow limit the assistance they receive from Pakistan. This, of course, is something that the United States has not been in a position to accomplish up to now. So long as the U.S./Coalition troop presence depends on supply routes through Pakistan, the United States is not in a position to pressure Islamabad into diminishing or halting its support for the Taliban. But once the troop withdrawal has been completed (and perhaps even before this), the United States will no longer be dependent on Pakistan for supply routes for its very large troop presence. A lower degree of military and economic assistance can instead be delivered via the Northern Distribution Network (i.e., via Russia and Central Asia). And if the United States is no longer dependent on Pakistan for supply routes to Afghanistan, Washington and its allies will be in a much stronger position to impose costs on Pakistan if it continues to support the Taliban. Increased American security cooperation with India, the imposition of unilateral or multilateral economic and military sanctions on Pakistan, and even support for Pakistani opposition movements are all measures that could be taken after the withdrawal that could help alter Islamabad’s understanding of the costs and benefits of its continuing to aid the Taliban.
The impending U.S./Coalition troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, then, might result in the Taliban’s overrunning Afghanistan once again. But it is certainly not foreordained that this will happen. America and its partners can undertake measures to prevent it, even after the withdrawal of their troop presence from Afghanistan.
1 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale Note Bene/Yale University Press, 2001), p. 21.
2 Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics (HarperCollins/Perennial, 2002), p. 255.
3 Ibid., p. 249.
4 Ibid., p. 256).