The latest strategic intransigence from Afghan President Hamid Karzai has led to renewed concerns that the current Afghan government will collapse in the event that the United States completely withdraws direct military support at the end of 2014. A general state collapse, or the return of the Taliban, would obviously have unfortunate effects for nearly every one of its neighbors. The country is awash with weapons, and one downside of devoting substantial resources to training the Afghan National Army is the existence of a large pool of military age males with some professional training. An ideologically committed successor regime could create problems across the region.
Nevertheless, all is not grim. We shouldn’t forget that the Republic of Afghanistan, under Najibullah survived for nearly four years after the Soviet withdrawal, despite enjoying very little support from any state other than the flagging USSR. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan may be less robust, although it’s hard to see why that would be the case, but it is almost certain that it will enjoy considerably greater international support than its unfortunate predecessor.
Indeed, the focus on Afghanistan itself tells only part of the story, because the region and the world are much different now than in 1992. When Najibullah fell, the Soviet Union was in the process of full-scale collapse. China and India had yet to develop the military and economic tools to influence events well beyond their borders. The United States found itself distracted by events associated with the collapse of the USSR, as did Western Europe. Iran was recovering from the Iran-Iraq War, and still sorting through its revolution.
In short, the international community was ill-prepared to prevent state collapse in 1992, but now seems bent on maintaining even very weak states. Today, when states such as Mali and the Central African Republic appear to teeter, some element of the international community intervenes to restore order, or at least to hold the center together. China has growing economic interests in Central Asia that would be jeopardized by an Afghan state collapse or Taliban takeover. India has a strong interest in the survival of the current regime, and has taken significant steps to increase the professionalism and capacity of the ANA.
The problem now isn’t that regional and global powers have no interest in maintaining order in Afghanistan, it’s that they’re interested in different orders. Instead of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban, the great powers are far more likely to become competitive in their efforts to woo Kabul, and to establish strong relationships with the central government. No states other than Pakistan have any interest in seeing a Taliban government, and Pakistan is probably the only regional player weaker now than in 1992. Even Pakistan, which in the 1990s sought strategic depth through support of the Taliban government, would view a Taliban return to power with some concern. Pakistan’s fight against its own version of the Taliban would hardly benefit from Mullah Omar’s return to Kabul.
This is hardly to say that the United States or any particular regional player should refrain from undertaking steps to solidify the Kabul government out of a hope that someone else will do it. Indeed, as several authors at The Diplomat have suggested, the regional powers should attempt to develop cooperative arrangements to maintain stability in Afghanistan. Needless to say, these arrangements must include engagement with the Kabul government, and even potentially with its domestic enemies. But the future of Afghanistan may be considerably brighter than an America-centric perspective suggests.