August 16, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 630

Heading Towards a Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

August 16, 2010 | By Yigal Carmon and Tufail Ahmad*
Afghanistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 630

Table of Contents

I. The U.S. Exit – An Emerging Chaos and Taliban Takeover

II. Karzai's Survival – Short Term Only Despite

a) Support of Afghan Allies

b) Support from U.S. and NATO Forces

c) Support from Evolving State Institutions

d) Support from Regional Allies

e) An Unexpected Factor

III. The ISI-Taliban Machine and the Threat to Karzai

IV. Pakistan's Grand Impact

V. As the U.S. Looks to Pakistan, India Turns to Iran

VI. The U.S.'s Options

a) To Let In the Incoming Chaos and the Taliban Takeover

b) To Either Postpone the Withdrawal or Opt for Partial Withdrawal

c) To Deploy U.S. Troops in the Pakistani Border Region

VII. Looking Ahead – Where Next for the Taliban?

I. The U.S. Exit – Emerging Chaos and Taliban Takeover

As U.S. troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011, an emerging fragile Afghan state under Hamid Karzai appears to be headed for a likely takeover by the Taliban.

Three major forces will impact the situation in Afghanistan: Pakistan, the U.S., and to a lesser degree India and Iran. An internal and regional power struggle will result. In fact, the regional powers have already begun to assert themselves with a view to acquiring a foothold in the power structure that will emerge after the U.S.'s exit. Recently, India has been turning to Iran to forge a common position on Afghanistan. And while the U.S. is seeking a return of the Russian presence to Afghanistan,[1] the Russian ambassador to New Delhi opposes the U.S.'s ''hastened withdrawal'' from Afghanistan because it could lead to ''hell.''[2]

The emerging situation in Afghanistan will be primarily characterized by disorder: The federal government's ability to govern will be limited to Kabul and some cities; vast regions will be controlled by the Taliban; and various Afghan leaders will maneuver to fill in the power vacuum and will position themselves as successor to Karzai, who cannot run for another term. The instability will be similar to what it was after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

II. Karzai's Survival – Short Term Only

Amid a power vacuum that will originate around the time of the U.S. forces' exit, Hamid Karzai has a chance of surviving in power for the short term only. He will be in a slightly better position to lead the fragile Afghan state than Najibullah was when the Soviets left Afghanistan. Being in power at the head of a fragile state, Karzai will become a target for the Taliban and other opposition parties. The chances of Karzai's surviving this chaotic phase, and his eventual exit from the scene will be determined largely by the U.S.-supported secret peace talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban. The militants are already in control of vast swathes of Afghanistan and are backed by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the most powerful regional force.

The Obama administration's Afghanistan policy has been characterized by three phases: a) during the initial months of U.S. President Barack Obama's term, his officials favored peace talks with the Taliban; b) later, the officials resisted Karzai's continuation in power and opposed any peace talks until the Taliban were subdued through military operations; and c) finally, they forced Karzai to embrace these inimical forces, especially through engaging Pakistan, thereby weakening him and foreclosing a visible path for the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. criticisms against him over corruption, Karzai's chances of surviving through a transition phase will be impacted to a large extent by the following:

a) Support of Afghan Allies
Karzai is backed by almost all former warlords and mujahideen leaders who fought against the Soviets during the 1980s, including Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abd Rab Al-Rasul Sayyaf and Abdul Rashid Dostum. A key mujahideen leader who is not supporting him, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hizb-e-Islami, is nevertheless engaged in peace talks.

b) Support from U.S. and NATO Forces
The Karzai regime will enjoy the strength derived from the presence of U.S. troops who may remain in Afghanistan in some form. The U.S. and the NATO countries have no option but – in adhering to the democratic process underway in Afghanistan – to work with Karzai during a transition period.

c) Support from Evolving State Institutions
The evolving state institutions in Afghanistan such as the military, the police, the bureaucracy and the justice system, though weak in their early years, will strengthen Karzai's hand significantly. Over the past half-century or so, elections have emerged as turning points, and in their wake they leave irreversible imprints on a nation's life. Although the August 20, 2009 Afghan presidential elections were tainted by corruption, elections are currently the only UN-mandated democratic process in Afghanistan that offer legitimacy to the government. The September 18 parliamentary polls will indirectly broaden the political basis on which Karzai may survive the next few years.

d) Support from Regional Allies
Karzai will receive support from regional allies like India (because of its opposition to the Taliban and Pakistan) and also from Iran (because of its opposition to the anti-Shi'ite Taliban and the Sunni state of Pakistan). Notwithstanding the reports of Iranian support to a section of the Taliban, India and Iran have matching interests in the creation of an independent Afghanistan; they will prefer Karzai for the time being, or a staunch anti-Taliban Afghan leader like former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, over the Sunni jihadist force of the Taliban seizing power in Kabul. Pushed into the corner by the Obama administration, Karzai too has recently been courting Iran.

e) An Unexpected Factor
A totally unexpected factor may help the Karzai regime to stay in power. For example, as a result of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban will emerge as the most powerful force in Afghanistan and some of the militant groups among them may attempt to march toward Islamabad to capture power in Pakistan. Such a possibility almost became reality in 2009, when the Taliban launched the enforcement of Islamic Shari'a in Pakistan's Swat district and began marching into neighboring districts on the way to Islamabad. An attempt by the Taliban to move from Afghanistan into Pakistan may force the U.S. to stay put in Afghanistan and support the Karzai government.

III. The ISI-Taliban Machine and the Threat to Karzai

Karzai has been pressured by the Obama administration to engage Pakistan for a quick solution to the Afghan problem. Such pressure from the U.S. is a direct result of the Pakistani establishment's diplomatic offensive in convincing the Obama administration officials to accept the view that peace is impossible in Afghanistan without Pakistan's cooperation. The Obama administration has imbibed the Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI) viewpoint on Afghanistan, especially with regard to India's role in the country, but has ignored the fact that the ISI's support to the militants is the root of the problem in Afghanistan.

Under pressure from the Obama administration to engage Pakistan, Karzai agreed to Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan during his May 2010 visit to Washington, DC. However, at a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Karzai pointed out that most of the Taliban leaders are in neighboring Pakistan.[3] His point that the Taliban are controlled by ISI is known internationally. Even when he is willing to engage Pakistan under U.S. pressure, the problem Karzai is facing is the double-edged policy of the ISI, which while mediating talks with the Taliban, is also encouraging the Taliban to fight. The Taliban's influence is now consequential in all provinces of Afghanistan.

Karzai has always favored reintegration of the low-ranking Taliban militants into Afghan society, as opposed to the Pakistani view of reconciliation with the core Taliban leaders. Under U.S. pressure, Karzai has been forced to give a substantial role to the ISI. The premise of the ISI-sponsored reconciliation process is that some Taliban leaders favored by the ISI will be part of a power structure in Kabul that will replace Karzai. As long as Mullah Omar, the Emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is around the corner and has chances of returning to power, Karzai will not be able to maintain his rule for long. The ISI's involvement with Karzai is transient and tactical in nature. It should be kept in mind here that it is the ISI, not the elected civilian government in Islamabad, which dictates Pakistan's foreign policy.

IV. Pakistan's Grand Impact

As the U.S. troops leave, Pakistan will have the grand impact on Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the ISI, working in cooperation with the CIA, established a strong presence in Afghanistan which Pakistan regards as its strategic backyard. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, various Afghan warlords and the mujahideen leaders could not form a stable government in Kabul. In the mid-1990s, the ISI propped up the Taliban to restore order and establish Pakistan's control in Afghanistan. Even now, the Taliban are controlled by the ISI. The current Pakistani policy is to bring back the Taliban and to revive the policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Pakistan had to rescind its diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. However, it kept hoping that the Taliban will return to power in Kabul. Pakistan's worry has been that when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan without a political settlement to its liking, it might not be able to secure its interests there. It has worried that an independent Afghanistan will raise the issue of Pakistan-Afghanistan border demarcation, which Kabul does not recognize. It is concerned that Afghanistan will also raise the issue of the continuing movement of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants across the border. However, the Obama administration has successfully forced Karzai to engage Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign policy on Afghanistan and all engagements with Karzai are being coordinated exclusively through the powerful duo of Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who succeeded General Kayani as the chief of the ISI. Pakistan's long-held wish to see the return of the Taliban in Kabul appears to be nearer than ever.

Even while the Afghan president is now building a relationship with the ISI, it is unlikely that the Pakistani military will accept an independent Afghanistan and forego Pakistan's entrenched perception which views Afghanistan as strategic depth, in other words as a client state. In recent years, Pakistani leaders have tried to counter international concerns over the Pakistani military's idea of strategic depth in Afghanistan. Their argument is that the Pakistani military no longer holds on to this theory. However, contrary to this claim, Pakistan has been pursuing a policy of neo-strategic depth, as per which the ISI thinks that Afghanistan should not fall under Indian influence. The ISI will not accept a leader like Karzai in the long run, especially in view of his strong associations with India and also with Iran recently.

Therefore, it is expected that the ISI-Taliban machine will act against Hamid Karzai as soon as pro-Pakistan Afghan leaders gain a say in the power structure in Kabul. This will lead to the reversal of the ISI's current tactical policy of engaging Karzai. It will also create a challenge for the stability of the emerging Afghan state and put Karzai's life in imminent danger. The Pakistani military's policy of neo-strategic depth and successful revival of the Taliban is complete. With the U.S. forcing Karzai to engage Pakistan, the path for the ISI-sponsored Taliban to take over Kabul has been now paved. As the U.S. quits Afghanistan, it is Pakistan that will have the grand impact in Kabul.

V. As the U.S. Looks to Pakistan, India Turns to Iran

In recent years, India had emerged as an important ally for the U.S. in international relations. Both countries have shared goals on Afghanistan. India has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. In November 2009, India reversed its long-standing policy of supporting Iran internationally and voted alongside the U.S. at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in favor of referring Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council.

However, with the Obama administration leaning on the Pakistani military to broker peace in Afghanistan, India feels alienated from the U.S., particularly with the policy of undermining Karzai. Forced to engage with Pakistan, Karzai too feels alienated from the U.S. and has extended his overtures to Iran. India has also shown its disapproval of the ISI-mediated peace talks between Karzai and the Taliban. India worries that with the Taliban coming to power in Kabul, the Pakistani Taliban too will be emboldened and pose a regional threat to India. The Indian government is also concerned that the U.S. keeps going with Pakistan despite public revelations that the ISI is supporting the anti-U.S. militant organizations, thereby undermining the American policy in Afghanistan.

As a result of the Obama administration's policy of supporting a Pakistani role in Afghanistan, India is now reversing its pro-U.S. stance on international issues. During his trip to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. in April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Obama that the UN sanctions are not an answer to counter Iran's nuclear program.[4] Later, Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna reiterated India's disagreement with the U.S. position on Iran's nuclear program by publicly welcoming an Iranian decision to send its low-enriched uranium stock to Turkey.[5]

India has stated publicly that it will not walk away from its engagements in Afghanistan when the U.S. troops withdraw. India now looks to Iran to forge a common stance on Afghanistan. Indian and Iranian leaders have been travelling frequently between Tehran and New Delhi. During a meeting in the Indian capital in early August, top Iranian and Indian officials agreed in principle to counter the threat of Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan. Iran, courted by Karzai and India, has been gaining influence in Afghanistan.

VI. The U.S.'s Options

What options does the U.S. have in Afghanistan?

a) To Let In the Incoming Chaos and the Taliban Takeover
The emerging chaos in Afghanistan results from the U.S. exit plan. The U.S. can press ahead, as per the presidential pledge, to begin the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting in July 2011. This stated goal has already motivated the regional powers like Pakistan, India and Iran to position themselves to shape the emerging power structure in Afghanistan. Importantly, the Taliban attacks across Afghanistan have increased and their influence in all provinces is now substantial. Depending on the pace of the withdrawal, the Taliban are poised to claim power for the first time since the U.S. troops dislodged them in 2001.

The moves to broker peace with the Taliban are unlikely to yield their desired purpose. Any kind of peace agreement with the Taliban will embolden them further as the militants are unlikely to accept the Afghan constitution. A Shari'a-for-peace agreement reached between the Taliban and the secular Pakistani government emboldened them so much that the militants began enforcing Islamic Shari'a in the Pakistani district of Swat in early 2009. Indeed, this has been the fate of all peace agreements reached between the Pakistani military and the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal region in recent years. With or without an agreement with the Taliban, Afghanistan is headed for a return of chaos with the U.S. troops no longer there.

b) To Either Postpone the Withdrawal or Opt for Partial Withdrawal
Another option could be to postpone the withdrawal of the U.S. troops and support the Afghan forces fighting against the Taliban. Although this option conflicts with the U.S. presidential pledge to begin transferring the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, at this point in time, only a symbolic withdrawal seems realistic. The emerging terrorist threats in the U.S. emanating from the Taliban may justify a delay in withdrawal.

Alternatively, the U.S. troops can withdraw not out of the country but to barracks in and around Kabul and other key cities, depending on whether the Karzai administration can shoulder some of the security responsibilities. With the increasing strength of the Afghan troops, it will be possible for the Karzai government to hold on to some cities. While partial withdrawal could preserve the existing democratic process, such a move could also be an ongoing inducement to the Taliban to mount attacks on Kabul until it falls. Insofar as the strength of the Afghan security forces is concerned, it is not sufficient to counter the ISI-Taliban machine. The Taliban appear to be in a strong position to claim power when the U.S. troops leave.

c) To Deploy U.S. Troops in the Pakistani Tribal Region
Instead of withdrawing totally back home, the U.S. troops could be redeployed to the Pakistani tribal region. Unlike the U.S. drone attacks that have killed many militant commanders, the Pakistani military operations have generally failed to kill or capture top militant leaders of the Pakistani Taliban or the Afghan Taliban leaders who reside in Pakistan. In fact, some Pakistani militant commanders such as Maulana Fazlullah have been fighting in Afghanistan recently.

The move to deploy U.S. troops in the Pakistani tribal region will be justified by the Taliban's emerging strategy of fighting the U.S. on its soil. The failed May 1, 2010 Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad and Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud's video warning of attacks in North America will justify the deployment of the U.S. troops inside Pakistan. Such a move will be fiercely opposed by the Pakistani government and could materialize only in the event of major attacks on the U.S. soil emanating from this region.

Two elements are vital parts of all the three options: the preparation for the continuity of leadership in Afghanistan, and the creation of a stability fund.

First, there are no credible leaders at present who could replace Karzai, but in the long run, the Karzai administration and the U.S. could work to train new leaders, in case an attempt on Karzai's life succeeds or he leaves. In the current circumstances, an attempt to eliminate Karzai in the near term appears real. With the ISI-brokered peace talks becoming a reality, some Afghan leaders are already sensing the arrival of a new regime in Kabul and are now visiting Pakistan to seek ISI's blessings. Afghan leaders – e.g. Ustad Mohammad Mohaqiq of Hizb-e-Vehdat party and Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili recently visited Pakistan to position themselves as Karzai's potential successors.[6] Some other acceptable leaders who enjoy respect among Afghans could be Ali Ahmad Jalali (the former interior minister), Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (the former finance minister and presidential contender) and Zalmay Khalilzad (former U.S. ambassador to Kabul). The role of the U.S. in preparing for such a possibility is vital. Such an achievement can be ensured by working alongside Karzai, who cannot run for a third term under the Afghan constitution.

Second, unlike the American withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies could set up a substantial stability fund aimed at sustaining the Afghan security forces and local administrative setups. Such a step will gradually build up the strength of the Afghan security forces.

VII. Looking Ahead – Where Next for the Taliban?

In a stalemated power structure that will rise in Kabul as the U.S. troops withdraw, a fragile Afghan state headed by Karzai will be opposed by a strong opposition group led by the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami leader Hekmatyar, who also enjoys consistent support from Pakistan's ISI. While the Karzai administration will try to reach out to the militants, the ideologically committed leadership of the Taliban movement is unlikely to abandon its goal of establishing a jihadist emirate in Afghanistan. The Taliban's efforts to establish such an emirate in Afghanistan will be strengthened by the withdrawal of the U.S. troops which will be viewed as victory by the jihadists.

With the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, the country's democratic experience over the past few years will come to an end. The Karzai-led regime will be taken over by the ISI-Taliban machine, a source of danger to the U.S. and Arab regimes. Already, Pakistan's Afghanistan policy is being arbitrated by the ISI chief. Afghanistan will again be a hotbed of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The militants are already controlling vast regions of Afghanistan.

After the Taliban's takeover, a question can be asked as to what will be the next goal for the Taliban. Many of the militant organizations that are part of the Taliban machine will be controlled by the ISI to engage against India. From the experience in Pakistan, it is clear that some of the Taliban groups are ideologically committed and they will continue the jihad machine against the West. Many of them, especially the younger generations, are aligned with Al-Qaeda and are also fighting against the Pakistani military and the state of Pakistan. The new generations of the militant organizations are devoted to the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate.

The best course for the U.S. and its international allies in Afghanistan could be to guarantee security to Karzai's life but simultaneously prepare leaders to succeed him. A decision by the Bush administration to support the government of Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq not only stabilized Iraq but also ensured that the jihadists did not expand their reach into neighboring countries. A decision by the Obama administration to support the Karzai government in Afghanistan may also save Pakistan from falling into the hands of the Taliban.

* Tufail Ahmad is Director of MEMRI's Urdu-Pashtu Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] Al-Hayat, London, May 22, 2010.

[2], India, May 10, 2010.

[3], U.S., May 13, 2010.

[4], India, April 14, 2010.

[5], India, May 21, 2010.

[6] Roznama Mawa-i-Waqt, Pakistan, August 10, 2010.

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