Over the weekend, The Washington Post, citing members of the U.S. intelligence and defense community, reported that a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the future of Afghanistan “predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.” This conclusion was offered by “officials who have read the classified report or received briefings on its conclusions.”
What the WaPo’s sources confirm is that the urgency the United States has placed behind the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Hamid Karzai’s government is well-placed and based on a sort of consensus within the U.S. intelligence community. Karzai, for a variety of political considerations, has been intransigent on the matter of the BSA after initially appearing to approve of its terms – he claims that signing the BSA is a matter for his successor to decide after the general elections in April 2014. Instead, Karzai has looked to Afghanistan’s neighbors – India and Iran – for defense assistance and support. Just a week after his reluctance to sign the BSA, Karzai signed a security pact with Iran and soon thereafter went to New Delhi.
The latest intelligence estimate, of course, specifically focuses on the deleterious consequences for U.S. national security interests should Afghanistan fall back to the Taliban by 2017. Specifically, the report predicts that the initial objective in Afghanistan – removing the Taliban and disabling al Qaeda’s operations within the country – could fail spectacularly and the Taliban could return in full-swing by 2017.
The pessimism isn’t universal, however. One official who spoke to the WaPo said that what is likelier is that Afghanistan will see “a recalibration of political power, territory and that kind of thing.” Since the NIE isn’t available for public viewing, its unknown to what extent the agencies weighted the possibility of continued international influence from non-U.S. actors in the region. For the moment, the BSA has broad regional support from friends and rivals alike – China, India, Pakistan, and Russia all support the BSA and a continued U.S. presence of about 8000 troops in Afghanistan.
I tend to see eye-to-eye with Diplomat contributor Robert Farley, who notes that the picture is far less pessimistic if we view Afghanistan from the vantage point of its many neighbors, whose stakes in its stability are far greater now than at any point prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001. For the moment, it appears that the NIE report appears to underestimate the capabilities of the Afghan National Army, which continues to develop valuable experience in combating the Taliban every day. The novice institution could mature into a formidable bulwark against a Taliban resurgence.
Additionally, as the Doha process with the Taliban has somewhat demonstrated, the Taliban don’t possess the sort of clear command structure they did in their heyday under Mullah Omar. The group continues to operate as a monolithic institution, perceiving itself as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, but attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country are organized by splinter groups. I’m not optimistic about the peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban particularly because Taliban leaders (the ones at the negotiating table in Doha) don’t have the capability to guarantee a complete cessation of attacks as a show of trust for concessions from the Kabul government. “Taliban” has become a self-avowed descriptor for a variety of militants who take issue with the foreign presence in Afghanistan.
Where I think the NIE is right is that when we speak about Afghanistan in 2017, we likely won’t be describing an ideal situation for the United States and its interests in the region. Order and governance may endure in Afghanistan but they won’t be of the sort acceptable to the United States and its partners. Still, that doesn’t mean that all was for naught over the last thirteen years. Should the BSA falter, the U.S. could still pursue its objectives by fomenting a cooperative arrangement with middle powers more proximal to Afghanistan. For the moment, there’s no reason to buy entirely into the pessimistic projection put forth by the NIE – the future of Afghanistan appears brighter for the moment.