West's Afghan Hopes Collide with Reality

West's Afghan Hopes Collide with Reality

Mini Teaser: The outcome in Afghanistan won't resemble the vision of America and its allies, who wanted a strong, Western-aligned central government keeping the Taliban at bay. The goals should now be less ambitious.

by Author(s): Michael Hart

THE WEST’S military engagement in Afghanistan is entering its eleventh year and has another two years to go before the end of combat operations in 2014. Whatever the result of the international conferences that began last year in Istanbul and Bonn to elicit support for a successor state, one thing is clear: after Western forces draw down, Afghanistan won’t bear much resemblance to the Western vision that fueled the intervention in the first place. However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country’s future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country’s ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.

In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area—and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.

Thus, it is possible to discern a picture of an Afghan future and to predict it will fall far short of the high hopes that attended American and Western engagement there following the al-Qaeda attacks in America on September 11, 2001. These were hopes of an Afghanistan ruled effectively by a central government in Kabul aligned with the West and capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Instead, Western influence will be severely reduced. The central government in Kabul will probably be weak, as it has been for most of Afghanistan’s history. The centrifugal effect of Afghanistan’s ethnic geography will be exacerbated by intensified involvement, directly and by proxy, of competing external powers. Pakistani, Indian and Iranian influence will increase, as will that of the Afghan Taliban in Pashtun-majority areas and probably within the Kabul political establishment. In the absence of a significant improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, their geopolitical competition, played out by proxy, could become the dominant ideological conflict inside Afghanistan. Given the weakness of the Afghan national polity, endemic corruption and economic dependence on international aid, the long-term survival of any successor regime is doubtful, even without the challenge of a Taliban insurgency more coherent than the mujahideen insurgency of the 1990s.

Two fundamental strategic questions emerge from this picture of the Afghan future. First, in the event of a failure to manage the insurgency in the South and East, where the Taliban is strong and likely to remain strong, can a non-Taliban redoubt be sustained in northern Afghanistan? And, second, how effectively could influence be projected into the Pashtun South in order to prevent, if necessary, al-Qaeda from reestablishing an operational base in that area?

On the first question, historical precedent suggests a non-Taliban North can be sustained. Before 2001, ethnic connections among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, combined with external powers, provided sufficient support to the Northern Alliance to prevent a complete Taliban takeover of the North. But it should be noted that Taliban successes in first Herat and later Kunduz provided an opening for the organization’s later campaign against the Northern Alliance. This indicates that future durability is likely to depend on preventing any Taliban footholds outside the Pashtun-majority areas in the South and East. But given the strength of Iranian connections in western Afghanistan, this probably would mean accepting significant Iranian influence over the outcome.

On the second question, it would appear that sufficient influence could be projected into the Pashtun South and East to prevent the area from reverting to an operational base for al-Qaeda, should that prospect emerge as a danger to the West. In other words, al-Qaeda’s freedom of operation can be disrupted after 2015 on both sides of the Durand Line, the porous and vaguely marked 1,600-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that bisects the region’s ethnic Pashtuns. That is because the demands of providing support to a major counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan would be significantly reduced after the military drawdown by America and its allies and because the example of the successful campaign which ejected the Taliban from power in 2001 is well understood by all Afghan political players.

Perhaps the key strategic lesson of more than ten years of Western involvement in Afghanistan is that, despite the West’s economic, technical and intellectual strength as well as its sophisticated expertise in counterinsurgency, it can’t effectively compete against neighboring powers such as Pakistan, India and Iran, whose strategic interests in the region make their involvement both nondiscretionary and enduring. If the West wishes to maintain the ability to project power in Afghanistan following 2014, it will have to leverage the antipathy toward the Taliban of non-Pashtun peoples in the northern and western areas. This in turn will require a willingness and ability to work effectively with neighboring players in the region that have significant influence with certain of those non-Pashtuns of the North and West. It will also require a measure of diplomatic humility.

ANY EFFORT to assess prospects for Afghanistan after 2014 must begin with an examination of the current military state of play. Since 2010, it has become possible to assess the military surge in southern Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and the picture is somewhat positive at the local level. It should be noted, however, that the increased military presence—and the intensified pressure on the Taliban—was never intended to be permanent. The aim was to provide the Afghan government and the international community with sufficient breathing space to allow them to establish governance with sufficiently strong roots and legitimacy to endure and an Afghan security apparatus with the strength to protect it.

Thus far, where Western forces, particularly Americans, are present in strength, the combination of numbers and the professional expertise developed over a decade of counterinsurgency has disrupted—and in some areas reversed—the Taliban’s tactical momentum. The success can be measured in the reduced number of violent incidents where troop densities are highest—down by more than 40 percent since 2009—and in the change in tactics forced upon the Taliban. Before 2008, for example, the Taliban pursued direct engagements, but Western tactics later forced it to make adjustments. In 2009, the balance shifted toward IEDs, and from 2010, with the Taliban increasingly pressured in Helmand and Kandahar, the insurgents turned to assassinations of Afghan government officials and high-profile gun and suicide-bomb attacks in Kabul.

But the Taliban’s tactical adjustments represent a double-edged sword. One edge reflects the effective counterinsurgency campaign pursued by America and its allies. But the other reflects the adaptability and resilience of the Taliban. Indeed, notwithstanding tactical and local gains by America and the West, it is clear that the insurgency, rooted in Afghan Pashtun society and protected by cross-border sanctuaries, will endure well past 2015. As the cessation of combat operations approaches, the ability of Western military forces to control events will wane significantly.

This does not mean that Western actions between now and 2014 are irrelevant. Effective transition to an Afghan security apparatus is essential. For one thing, the institutional reputation of Western armies is at stake. But beyond that, it is clear that without an effective transition, no Afghan successor state can survive long. This makes the style, timing and nature of the West’s withdrawal from combat operations highly significant. Precipitate or sudden withdrawal is likely to damage the fledgling Afghan National Army and will deny time for local police forces to become effective.

But the transition, however it unfolds, is unlikely to define the long-term Afghan future. That future will emerge from deep historical, political, cultural, economic and geopolitical forces and trends, both in Afghanistan and across the region. These forces and trends almost inevitably will sap Western influence in the region as the influence of Afghans and their neighbors will increase. This can be best understood through an examination of the country’s ethnic makeup; its weak central government; the tribal and other cultural elements of the South and East dominated by Pashtuns, and of the North and the Hazarajat, largely anti-Pashtun territory; and the geopolitical imperatives of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

ETHNICITY IS a key determinant of identity in Afghanistan. It also affects how neighboring countries interact with Afghans. The country’s population includes Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, Baluch, Kuchi and Uighurs. The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, with about 44 percent of the population, most of it concentrated across the southern areas of the country (and in northern Pakistan). There are also a number of Pashtun enclaves in northern Afghanistan, established by the British in the nineteenth century. The Uzbek and Tajik populations are centered north of Kabul, the Hazara in the mountainous areas to the west of Kabul.

This ethnic geography carries immense weight in determining the Afghan future. After Western withdrawal, the Taliban will probably not be able to exert effective control over the whole of Afghanistan. Essentially a Pashtun phenomenon, it will be difficult for the Taliban to command sufficient support in non-Pashtun areas to hold sway there. But the Taliban is strong enough amongst the Pashtuns to rapidly exert control over large areas in the South and East if residual structures fail.

Afghanistan’s central government also poses a big question mark for the country. The government almost surely will be weak—a consequence in large measure of President Karzai’s two terms in office. His government has been undermined by corruption, familial and Pashtun nepotism, and a failure to engage consistently with the wider Kabul polity. At the provincial level and below, Karzai’s political situation is not much better. Lack of effective government and the Taliban challenge have undermined his standing, and his support among Pashtuns in the South has declined precipitately.

There are surface parallels between Karzai’s attempt to function as a national leader and the leadership of Mohammed Najibullah, head of the Soviet successor state in Kabul. Najibullah also sought to bring the nation together through his national reconciliation and pacification program of the late 1980s. But Najibullah was a far more effective national leader who understood and engaged with the wider societal and political issues of the day in a manner that Karzai has not been able to do. His People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was a political party with national reach; the Karzai years have not spawned any such party organization with comparable influence. The 2011 formation of the Truth and Justice Party, which seeks to represent a broad range of ethnic groups and ideological positions, is a belated attempt to put this right. But however rapidly the party develops, it isn’t likely to challenge successfully the well-established local and regional power brokers or take on the Taliban in the South and East.

Still, the events that preceded Najibullah’s fall in 1992 have a depressing contemporary resonance. His government fell after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of Soviet support for the Kabul regime. But even before that, the country’s extended crisis contained elements of corruption, financial collapse, scarcity of resources and chronic overdependence on foreign support. In 1988, 75 percent of Afghan state revenue derived from projects dependent on Soviet support. And in 1991, internally generated revenue provided just 30 percent of a declining GDP. The inability of today’s Afghanistan to generate the revenue to meet the financial burden of maintaining an expanded national army and police force is eerily reminiscent of the immediate post-Soviet era, after the abrupt collapse of Soviet support left the country economically on its own.

A joint Afghan and World Bank report issued in November 2011 stated that, assuming effective development of Afghan minerals and national economic growth of 5–6 percent a year for a decade, expenditures would still exceed GDP by some 25 percent, or $7.2 billion a year. Even when the cost of maintaining the security forces is removed, spending exceeds income by 11 percent. And this is based on the assumption that security will improve sufficiently to allow for the exploitation of mineral resources. That may not be a realistic assumption. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a similarly pessimistic report. The international community may make available greater support than the USSR was able to give Najibullah, but it still may not be enough to offset the weakness of any national government following Western disengagement, not to mention the existence and durability of the Taliban. A more ideologically coherent opponent than the mujahideen of the late 1980s and early 1990s, today’s Taliban is the dominant indigenous Afghan political influence in the South and East.

Then there are the twin issues of personality and deeply ingrained behavioral patterns at the national level. One might think that the civil war of the 1990s and the subsequent Taliban government, followed by the Taliban overthrow, would have brought new governmental and political players to the fore. But the Afghan national polity seems to be dominated by the same people as before, and it is striking how difficult it is for outsiders to break into it, even in the face of these major traumas. Many of the key figures have been major players in Afghan national politics far longer than Karzai, which may account for some of his difficulties. With the exception of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, both killed by the Taliban, almost all the key players of the 1990s remain active today.

But another important reality is that none of these men has obvious credentials as a potential national leader. They are distinctly ethnic or regional players. The result is that there has been a dearth of alternative potential national leaders. This reflects, in part, the ethnic and local nature of Afghan society and politics. But deliberate policy comes into play as well. Karzai raised concerns among American policy makers in 2010 when he sacked two top governmental officials—Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh—after they failed to prevent an attack on a Kabul peace council. Such actions belie any idea of an orderly political succession. Thus, the collective behavior of the Kabul polity is likely to revert to that of the early 1990s—jockeying for individual and ethnic advantage as well as the formation of unstable, shifting alliances susceptible to external exploitation and military pressure.

It should be noted that, in Najibullah’s day, the expectation that Soviet withdrawal would precipitate a large-scale and successful mujahideen offensive effectively undercut Najibullah’s policy of national reconciliation. When the mujahideen failed to capture Kabul following a military defeat at Jalalabad, the idea of reconciliation temporarily gained renewed momentum. A similar pattern could emerge today as imminent Western withdrawal is sensed. But a major Taliban defeat in southern or eastern Afghanistan isn’t likely. Without active Western military partners, it is doubtful the Afghan National Army will prosecute a successful counterinsurgency campaign against the resilient and resourceful Taliban. Once the extent of Taliban political control over the hinterland becomes plain, the national army’s Pashtun soldiers could leave en masse. That would mean the struggle taking on an ethnic cast, as the residue of trained Tajiks (overrepresented within the officer corps), Panjshiris and Uzbeks assume the bulk of resisting any Taliban spillover from the Pashtun areas. Thus there is a strong possibility that the country will return to the politics and conflict of the 1990s, characterized by ethnic and geographic divisions and passions.

It is premature and perhaps unduly pessimistic to talk of a Taliban protostate in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But after 2015, the Pashtun South and East will almost inevitably come under increased Taliban influence. Taliban strength and resilience are based as much on a natural affinity with the population as on intimidation or the Kabul government’s weakness. Before 2010, each successive attempt to extend control and governance was followed by Taliban success in retaking that territory. Away from the areas of direct Western military control, Taliban “shadow governance” is far stronger than the writ of Kabul. It is true that the surge of American forces in southern Afghanistan has produced significant tactical gains, and Afghan forces, mentored by Western soldiers, have begun to perform more effectively. But once Western military forces are removed, Taliban influence and control will likely expand once again. The models of provincial governance imposed or attempted by the West are not sufficiently deep or rooted to endure in Pashtun-majority areas.

In Helmand, the residual British model, based as it is on an external technocrat, effectively relied upon one man, Governor Gulbuddin Mangal, for several years. Even without a Taliban challenge, in the absence of Western military forces, local rivals with genuine roots in Helmandi society such as Sher Muhammad Akhundzada would have rapidly engineered Mangal’s removal. These men draw their power and authority as much from business interests, including narcotics, as from any traditional tribal structures or patronage networks, which were substantially destroyed in the Soviet occupation. However, despite their ability to raise and arm militias, they are unlikely to be any more effective in resisting the Taliban’s political and religious appeal and military power in 2015 than they were in 1994–96. By 2011, the structures of governance underpinning Mangal were more resilient, but their viability in the absence of the security provided by Western soldiers remains questionable.

There are few reasons to anticipate durability in the U.S. model in the Pashtun areas of eastern Afghanistan. The practice was to install a strongman from outside the province as governor. In Nangarhar, Governor Gul Agha Sherzai established a credible level of security. But then bombings in a Jalalabad bazaar in 2010 demonstrated just how tenuous that security really was. The resurgence of Taliban influence was starkly illustrated by an attack on Kabul Bank in Jalalabad in early 2011. Residual tribal structures are stronger in the East than in the South, but there is little evidence that tribally based militias could resist a reversion to Taliban control. Western withdrawal would thus almost certainly be followed quickly in both the South and East by restored Taliban influence.

The Taliban will probably also increase its influence in areas of mixed ethnicity, such as Wardak and Logar, near Kabul. In the 1990s, these areas formed the initial boundary between Taliban and governmental forces. Since 2008, the Taliban, using the capabilities of the Haqqani network, has infiltrated suicide attackers through Wardak and Logar to targets in Kabul. The influence of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his militia, loosely affiliated with the Taliban, is also strong in the area.

EVEN AT the apogee of its power, the Taliban never fully subdued the North, and there is little appetite for a return to Taliban rule in northern and western Afghanistan or the central Hazarajat. Given their experience with Taliban government, Uzbeks and Tajiks aren’t likely to accept future Taliban domination. A similar reluctance to accept Taliban control amongst the Shia Hazara can only have been increased by the brutal attacks on Shia pilgrims celebrating Ashura in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif in December 2011. This antipathy could provide the basis for efforts to limit Taliban influence in northern and western Afghanistan.

Away from the Pashtun South and East, individuals such as Atta Muhammad Noor, governor of Balkh, have established security, provided the basis for local stability and economic growth, and denied the Taliban a foothold. This model of governance, rooted in local conditions and society, is inherently more sustainable than models imposed by the West. Governors such as Noor command respect and raise effective militias, and warlords such as Ismail Khan in Herat have sufficient authority and capacity to provide the basis for coherent resistance to Taliban encroachment. Crucially, they also have overriding personal and ethnic incentives to do so.

As Western military disengagement approaches, preventing the Taliban from persuading individual northern power brokers to change sides will be critical. This gives added significance to the northern Pashtun pockets and eliminating Taliban shadow governance within them. In its mid-1990s advance, the Taliban established almost unstoppable momentum by developing local shadow governance before launching military operations. This expedited its military success. In this way it captured Herat (which cut direct links from Iran to the Hazarajat and Mazar-i-Sharif) in September 1995, and then reinforced the Pashtun pocket of Kunduz (by air from Kabul) in 1997. This laid the foundations of its campaign against Mazar-i-Sharif.

The revival of the National Front after the assassination of Rabbani indicates an appetite to prevent Taliban dominance of the North and the Hazarajat. The prospect of containment after 2015 depends on preventing the development of such Taliban momentum, which may persuade individual northern leaders that their best interest is achieved by cutting deals with the Taliban. Taliban shadow governance across the North, the West and the Hazarajat must be undermined and preferably removed before any pullout of international forces. Another imperative is the defeat of the mini-insurgency in Kunduz, which contains the seed for wider Taliban success in the North and provides a linkage with Uzbek militant groups. The security of Herat also is crucial, but this is most likely to be achieved by Iranian soft power preventing Taliban control of the area.

History suggests that whilst the West’s preferred policy may be to support a national successor regime in Kabul, there is a valid alternative: support effective leaders in northern Afghanistan in order to provide a non-Taliban redoubt based in the Panjshir Valley, Mazar-i-Sharif (which dominates trade routes to central Asia), the Hazarajat and Herat. This approach is likely to be more fruitful than attempting to sustain a successor regime of limited strength and uncertain durability in Kabul.

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. Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia have the ability to project influence and power into Afghanistan. Their geographical proximity and political, economic and cultural linkages with Afghanistan ensure depth and durability in their engagement. Their motivations range from ethnic and cultural affinity to complex interrelationships with external strategic issues such as Kashmir, which acts to drive both Pakistani and Indian policy in Afghanistan.

Western withdrawal will force Iran to consider its policy choices. Before 2001, it regarded Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a major threat. Thus it deployed troops to the Afghan border and provided military support to the Northern Alliance. Once confronted with the reality of Taliban influence in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Iran will sharpen its ethnic, cultural and religious links with the Shia Hazara and its memory of Taliban repression of the Hazara in 1998–2000. Its ethnic interest will be to ensure that the Taliban remains confined to the Pashtun South and East. This could manifest itself in an agreement to allow a level of Taliban influence in western Afghanistan in return for nonrepression of the Hazara and the Hazarajat. But indirect intervention to ensure the security of Herat cannot be ruled out. Iran attempted that through Ismail Khan in the 1990s.

The strength of Iranian soft power in Herat and the Hazarajat gives Iran a level of durable influence in Afghanistan that the West cannot hope to match. Iran additionally remains well connected to the Kabul body politic and is adept at using political and economic levers (such as the periodic threat to expel Afghan refugees) to achieve political ends. This combination gives it significant influence over the sustainability of post-2015 governance in Afghanistan. In the context of Afghanistan’s future, Western engagement with Iran—including American engagement—could become a necessity.

But it’s possible that Iran’s ethnic interest in Afghanistan could coincide with the geopolitical interest of the West. Whether Iran’s supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will allow ethnic interests in Afghanistan to override ideology and drive geopolitical behavior is a separate question, particularly if formal strategic-partnership agreements between Western powers and Afghanistan leave Western bases within the country. It is likely to depend in large part on external factors such as the state of tensions over the Iranian nuclear program, nervousness about the implications of the Arab Spring for Iran, wider relations with the United States, and Iran’s perception of the level of U.S. threat after the departure of American combat forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Engagement with Pakistan is equally essential. Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is well chronicled and includes the willingness of elements of the Pakistani state, in particular its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to support or at least provide sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. There is little evidence that the Pakistani military establishment has fundamentally changed its perception that the Afghan Pashtuns, particularly the Afghan Taliban, are the most effective Pashtun political force north of the Durand Line, providing essential strategic depth against India, as does the Kashmiri group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Personal relationships between ISI officers and senior Afghan Taliban leaders are deep and enduring. Western pressure is unlikely to change this. Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead Pakistan to seek to ensure Taliban control of the South and East and to gain as much influence in Kabul as possible, not least to ensure Indian influence is limited and the specter of Indian encirclement, whether real or imagined, is mitigated.

Following the fillip to Taliban morale that the cessation of full Western military engagement will undoubtedly provide, and notwithstanding the hope that the establishment of an Afghan Taliban office in Qatar will reduce Pakistani influence, Pakistan is likely to be the only external power with significant influence over the Afghan Taliban leadership. Whether or how the Pakistani government wishes to exercise such influence is a moot point. In the immediate aftermath of a Western withdrawal, viewed as a victory by elements of Pakistan’s political and military elite and a significant majority of the Pakistani population, vague warnings of future destabilization will have limited effect. Like Iran, Pakistan is likely to regard any strategic partnership between the West and Afghanistan with deep suspicion, as it does the agreement signed between Afghanistan and India in November 2011.

One line of argument that may have potential in Islamabad is that Afghan Taliban control of southern and eastern Afghanistan, combined with a continuing Pakistani Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas, would threaten to bring about the de facto creation of a cross-border Pashtunistan and cross-fertilization between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. This will probably not be sufficient to deter the ISI (whose attitude toward both the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba suggests it is institutionally inclined to ride the tiger), but the potential threat it poses to the Pakistani state may offer pause for thought among Pakistan’s military commanders and political classes.

Like Pakistan and Iran, India will be forced to recalibrate its Afghan policy as Western military operations cease. It is unlikely to reduce its involvement. Increased Taliban power will deprive New Delhi of its influence in southern and eastern Afghanistan and its intelligence on Kashmiri militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba fighting and training in Afghanistan. Thus, India will probably seek to bolster Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara opposition to Taliban expansion. It may also increase support to Baluch separatists operating from Afghanistan against Pakistan and consider action against Kashmiri militants operating in Afghanistan. Continued and intensified Indian involvement in Afghanistan can only reinforce Pakistan’s determination to ensure Pashtun influence in Kabul and on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. It is also likely to reinforce Pakistan’s perception that this will best be achieved by an Afghan Taliban proxy. In the absence of a radical improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, which is itself probably dependent on a political shift in the Kashmir dynamic, the prospects for Afghanistan’s future after 2015 are likely to be undermined by the strategic competition between the two powers, which will be carried out inside Afghanistan by well-resourced proxies.

Other neighboring powers also have enduring interests. Russia has strong ethnic and political links with Uzbeks and Tajiks in Afghanistan. After 2014, any atavistic attraction of watching the West “bleed” in Afghanistan may be usurped by the impending geopolitical reality of the potential for southern Afghanistan to develop into a neo-Taliban state with the power to export jihadism into Central Asia. Russia is therefore likely to provide material and political support to Uzbeks and Tajiks. Turkey has both ambitions as a regional Eurasian power and strong links with Afghan Uzbeks and will provide support to them.

China will secure its economic interests, particularly minerals, such as the Aynak copper mine, and probably protect ethnic Uighurs in Badakhshan. Uzbekistan has an incipient insurgency of its own and therefore has little interest in seeing a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on its southern border. Similarly, Tajikistan’s ethnic interest in northern Afghanistan is likely to translate into tangible support for Afghan Tajiks.

HISTORY SUGGESTS that Afghanistan ultimately always follows its own path, guided in arcane and often obscure ways by powerful competing forces of ethnicity, tribalism, religion, geography, regional feuds, a fervor of national protectiveness and unbending obstinacy. For centuries these forces have militated against a strong central government in Kabul and all manner of foreign incursion.

So will it be with the latest Western effort to fashion and direct the Afghan future. A measure of stability is possible following the decade-long Western involvement, if the Taliban can be confined to majority-Pashtun areas, if the non-Taliban North can resist Taliban incursion, if the influence of neighboring countries can help maintain an equilibrium of competing forces, and if Western nations—particularly America—exercise deft regional diplomacy combined with a measure of restraint commensurate with their ability to influence regional events.

After ten years of efforts to shape Afghan society in ways favorable to Western interests, the long-term societal and geopolitical consequences of Western engagement are very different from those envisaged in 2002.

Michael Hart is a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who served in Afghanistan from 2008–09 and was director of defense studies for the RAF from 2010–11. The views expressed in the article are his alone and do not represent those of Her Majesty’s Government or the UK Ministry of Defence.

This article was derived entirely from open-source, unclassified material. The author is happy to provide his extensive original footnotes and bibliography upon request.


Image: Pullquote: History suggests that Afghanistan ultimately always follows its own path, guided in arcane and often obscure ways by powerful competing forces.Essay Types: Essay