Putin may rue the success of his strategy. The Taliban, energized by its victory, may establish a radical state on the southern frontier of the former Soviet Union and could even destabilize states like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Russia, however, could be the ultimate target. While the ethnic Russian population declines, Russia’s native Muslim population expands rapidly. Within just a decade or two, demographers privately estimate that 30 percent of the Russian army could be Muslim. Perhaps one reason why Putin relies increasingly on private contractors is he is not confidant in the loyalty of his army, especially if the targets are Islamists. The Taliban may only catalyze such internal conflicts.
ISIS May Give the Taliban a Run for Their Money
The Taliban claim to be Afghan nationalists but, more often than not, the group acts as Pakistani pawns and often turns its back on centuries of Afghan history and culture. The Taliban is a poor manager: it is easier to be in opposition than to serve the people and develop jobs and provide security. Indeed, between 1996 and 2001 when the Taliban ran the Kabul government, the extremist group fumbled its administration and failed to keep its promises. That provides openings for others who can talk a good game and grow while in opposition. The biggest difference between now and then is that the Taliban have competition. As the Iraqi military, Syrian Kurds, and U.S. forces have largely ended the Islamic State’s ability to control territory in Iraq and Syria, elements of the group have sought to establish themselves inside Afghanistan. It will likely succeed as the United States withdraws.
None of this is to suggest that the United States must fight in perpetuity in Afghanistan. But, while realism now reigns supreme in Washington, there is nothing realistic about Washington deluding itself with its own spin. There may be no clear path to victory in Afghanistan—at least none that politicians and the American public wish to pursue—and there certainly is no magic formula that will resolve the problems faced in Afghanistan and across the region. Still, the United States cannot pretend that the second order threats from a U.S. departure will not be great. The consequences of remaining in Afghanistan may be great, but as Trump and Khalilzad prepare to exit Afghanistan, it pays to realize that so too are the consequences of withdrawal.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Image: Reuters