On June 10, al-Qaeda affiliated militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. After Fallujah, this was the second city to have fallen to ISIS this year. The militants also control a large swath of land stretching from the Syrian border to central Iraq, rendering the border between the two nations all but non-existent. If the Iraqi army – with the help of al-Quds of Iran – does not roll back these gains, ISIS could soon threaten Baghdad.
While the Obama Administration worries about Iraq’s fate, it might well consider how a similar scenario may play out in Afghanistan in the near term. Afghanistan has yet to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which is scheduled to withdraw all troops by late 2016. If by that time the capabilities of Afghan security forces are not enhanced and relations with Pakistan are not improved, major cities – including Kabul – could be vulnerable to Taliban militants.
Afghanistan has been there before. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989, several major cities quickly fell to the Pakistan-based Mujahedin, and by May 1992 the Moscow-backed government and what passed for the Afghan Army had collapsed. A repetition of that experience is all the more likely if the Pakistan reaches a deal with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which could prompt Taliban fighters to focus their efforts on toppling the Kabul government.
In the nightmare scenario for Afghanistan, Pakistan would try to take on the role Iran plays with Iraq, making any Kabul regime its client. Once the battle for Afghanistan is reengaged, Pakistan would encourage the TTP and vicious allies such as the IMU (which recently struck the Karachi airport), to join the fray. For Pakistan, this would be a ploy to improve its own security situation by getting both Taliban forces – the TTP and the Afghan Taliban – to redirect their attention to jihad to re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Even though the TTP has its own leadership, they still view Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader, as their emir and have expressed their allegiance to him. The TTP would be a welcome guest in the fight for Kabul. More importantly, TTP’s attacks on Pakistani targets are a reaction to drones and the Pakistani army’s operations in Pakistani tribal areas. Once the TTP and their allies turn their attention to the fight in Afghanistan, they will have less incentive to strike at Pakistani interests.
Pakistan could even disguise and send part of its army and intelligence officers to support the Taliban inside Afghanistan as they take on the Kabul government. There is precedent for this too: the battle of Jalalabad in 1989, when Pakistan assisted the Mujahedin against the Moscow-backed government. During the 1990s, Pakistan frequently sent intelligence officers in support of the Taliban before their collapse in the wake of the American invasion in 2001.
But wouldn’t the Pakistanis be deterred by U.S. opposition to the reestablishment of a Taliban government in Afghanistan? Frankly, the U.S. might not oppose the above arrangement, as long as Kabul itself does not fall until after 2016. The U.S. is highly unlikely to send troops back to oppose a Taliban takeover. A Pakistani-controlled Taliban government might well seem the least of all possible evils. Moreover, the U.S. recently made a high-profile prisoner swap with the Taliban, clearly signaling that Washington could see itself working with, or at least living with, a future Taliban government. The groundwork for this is already visible: surprisingly, despite hundreds of terror attacks in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are still not on the Department of State list of terrorist groups.
As regards the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, the partnership agreement can still remain in place even after the Taliban have come to power. After all, the agreement is between the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and the United States. So long as U.S. interests are not threatened, it may not matter who comes to power in Afghanistan, as long as Pakistan “controls” them.
What would it take to frustrate the Pakistani plan? To avoid the above scenario, the new Afghan government should learn several lessons from Iraq. First, it should try to avoid complete U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2016, whether by lobbying Congress or directly convincing President Barack Obama it does not want a repeat of Iraq’s death spiral. Even if the U.S. decides to maintain around four to five thousand troops in post-2016, this would boost the Afghan army’s morale and its chances of success against the Taliban.
Second, Afghanistan must bolster the capabilities of its security forces. According to a Defense Ministry official in 2011, Afghanistan only had 44 tanks and 109 infantry vehicles. To defend itself against any Taliban offensive, especially one supported by Pakistan, the Afghan army has to acquire heavy weapons. Its air force needs fighter planes (it has none at all) and more transport aircraft. Also, Afghanistan needs double its fleet of 72 helicopters. In the event of a Taliban takeover of a city, given Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and poor road infrastructure, the army or special forces will need to be airlifted to the area.
Third, the Afghan government should act to improve its relations with Pakistan, convincing Islamabad that the Kabul government would be a better partner than the Taliban. Now that the U.S. is leaving, this step seems important more than ever if Pakistan is to be dissuaded from installing a puppet regime in Kabul. Right now, the Taliban represents Pakistan’s greatest leverage over the Afghan government. Afghanistan must convince Pakistan it has far better options than this.
Improving relations with Pakistan involves accommodating Pakistan’s concerns about the Durand Line, the disputed border between the two countries. Afghanistan should relinquish its territorial claims and recognize the Durand Line as the border – as it did during the British Indian Empire. In addition, Afghanistan must limit India’s involvement in Afghanistan, for example, closing Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, which are very close to the Pakistani border. Finally, Afghanistan must consider revoking the Strategic Partnership Agreement with India, in exchange for Pakistani non-interference.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are major non-NATO U.S. allies. As it did with Egypt and Israel, the U.S. can play a similar role in bridging the distance between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. does not want to see the achievements of the last 13 years – elections, freedom of speech, liberation of women – perish with any Taliban takeover of Kabul. Therefore, let the fall of Mosul weigh heavily on the Americans. The U.S. must act now so that Afghanistan does not become a second Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. drawdown.
Arwin Rahi, former advisor to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan, is a Fulbright fellow at The Bush School of Government and Public Service and a researcher on the Terrorist Ideology Project with Dr. Gary Ackerman at National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at University of Maryland; Valerie M. Hudson is professor and George H.W. Bush Chair at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.