Scenario Model: Afghanistan & The Hard Exit
Examination of the risks and costs of a "Loss of Control" of Afghanistan by the Taliban
This document was produced as a threat analysis for a regional nation-state with proximity to Afghanistan.
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A threat analysis is not a document that describes situations in politically favourable or unfavourable terms. It models a trajectory, including the events in that trajectory, as markets. It is not expected to be perfectly accurate, as events change over time depending on how ‘fixed’ stakeholders are to positions. This document was produced in advance of the Doha Meetings at the UN on Monday 01st and 02nd of May 2023, to model potential events that would follow the ‘hard exit’ from Afghanistan with a particular view towards the security of Central Asia.
It is not a criticism. It is an analysis. The purpose of the document is not to favour any side, but to examine the risks from the “hard exit” and those potential effects within the region.
This document format is in an executive style. This document represents the public version of the original document.
The purpose of this is to explore the outcomes of failed dialogue, in pair with the previous document, The Importance of Understanding Culture and Religion in Engaging with the Taliban.
THE SCENARIO MODEL:
This document explores the implications of a scenario involving a significant probability of a 'loss of control' event in Afghanistan, and the consequent implications for the region. The purpose of scenario modelling is to explore probable conditions for strategic planning and to set an 'event curve' that can track indicators to determine whether the scenario is conforming to the model in part or whole.
1. Afghanistan: Loss of Control Scenario
A 'loss of control' scenario refers to the situation in which the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan becomes incapable of governing the country as a whole due to the inability to provide economic stability and growth, factionalism that divides the Taliban further, or the creation of more hardline policies that force the international community to withdraw from the country ('hard exit').
1.1 The Hard Exit
The term 'hard exit' refers to an unplanned withdrawal from Afghanistan by the international community due to the inability to agree on divisive issues such as women and human rights. The potential outcome of this would be the exit of UNAMA from Afghanistan, as it would be unable to perform its mission.
1.2 Taliban Hostility Toward UNAMA
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan openly displays antagonism towards UNAMA, and privately the tone can be described as extremely hostile. The IEA may perceive, in the short term, that having UNAMA leave Afghanistan would be desirable, but this fails to consider the secondary and tertiary effects of this action in both the short and long term.
1.2.1 Inherent Conflict in the UNAMA Mission in Afghanistan
The UN is founded on a set of conventions and charters. The UN must conform or act in a manner that promotes its values to perform its mission. If UNAMA fails to do so, then the money it is spending is against its own purpose. In the context of IEA's Sharia, as it stands, this issue is existential for UNAMA.
On the other hand, the IEA has its own set of values based on its Sharia, which it is clear about. To allow the UN and international aid to an unrecognized country requires the UN. However, for the UN and all diplomats to work, international law and Sharia cannot conflict. If the UN and the money it invests continue to conflict with its mission, it cannot stay. It contravenes its purpose.
1.2.2 Immediate Secondary Effects
The immediate secondary effect of UNAMA's departure would be the creation of a political climate that would favour a "hard exit" from Afghanistan. UNAMA provides legitimacy for foreign presence in the country, and relief operations from the UN and the WFP depend on the use of sub-contractors, which are often foreign or local NGOs supported by international NGOs. Without UNAMA, these organizations, which rely on UN contracts and political coverage, would not be able to operate effectively. This would essentially ground the humanitarian effort, and regardless of the parties involved, UNAMA would be at an impasse.
As a result, Afghanistan would be left with a 98% food insecurity rate, virtually no economy, and little ability for the international community to bring about welfare advancements for its people. The continued support of the IEA would therefore be in violation of this principle.
1.2.3 Immediate Tertiary Effects
In Afghanistan, the tertiary effects of UNAMA's departure would be more like tidal waves than ripples. UNAMA provides the umbrella of legitimacy for all NGOs and diplomatic activities in an unrecognized state, which is largely not permissible for the UN or most international agencies to operate in.
Recent leaks about the number of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, as published in the Washington Post, and the SIGAR report, which paints a difficult picture of interference by the IEA, call into question the effectiveness of aid programs. Additionally, with the U.S. coming into an election cycle and the focus being on domestic politics, there will be little appetite for extended intervention in Afghanistan without political gains or concessions on the issue of women's rights in society.
Without UNAMA, the U.S. could easily refuse to be the single benefactor to Afghanistan and would have a logical and feasible exit strategy. There are no pragmatic political or regional gains for the West to make in the country. The UK, which is aggressively against immigration and openly anti-immigration to the point of being defiant of international law, would find disengagement from Afghanistan desirable as it would allow even stricter anti-migrant policies.
The argument that the IEA could align with Russia, China, Pakistan, or Iran is not feasible. The Taliban's relationship with the TTP and Pakistan's own economic crisis and political turmoil remove that option. Russia cannot support Afghanistan financially, and with the Ukraine war and crisis in Afghanistan, Russia would need to defend Central Asia from Jihadist incursions. China does not do aid relief, it builds infrastructure on a debt basis, and nearly always uses Chinese labour.
For the U.S., it makes strategic sense to let Afghanistan become the burden of Iran, Russia, and China, allowing these countries to waste their resources in a country that cannot unite and cannot operate a government capable of economic might through the leverage of its natural wealth. Let them spend on nation-building that is most likely going to fail. There is no loss here from abandonment by the West.
1.4 Contextual Geopolitics
There are no meaningful parallels to Afghanistan today, such as in the 1990s because we are not operating in an immediately post-Cold War setting, that for a period left the U.S. as the hegemonic force, and even in that time, the approach was one abandonment. We are in a multi-polar world, rife with proxies, and with conflicts occurring across the world that have the potential to engulf large areas of territory. The world is adversarial but not across two major blocs, but a series of smaller ones with new alliances forming that reshape the balance of power in the world order.
2. Loss of Control
2.1 What is the Loss of Control Scenario?
As the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, it is important to note that they are not a monolithic group. Rather, there are factions spread across different tribes that are held together by the Supreme Leader. Some of the major tribes within the Taliban include the Kandahari, Helmandi, Noorzai, and Ghazni, with the Kandahari and Noorzai being the two main factions. The Haqqani network, for example, is a Zadran, while the Supreme Leader himself is from the Noorzai tribe.
However, the ability of the Taliban-led government to survive without foreign aid and to feed the country's population is uncertain. This could potentially lead to private conflicts between different factions spilling over into open conflict. Moreover, once the world has left Afghanistan, it is unlikely to return, which could leave the country vulnerable to further instability.
In addition, the Taliban's control over the country also means that terrorist groups in the region may try to take advantage of the situation. Afghanistan is home to at least 25 terrorist groups, and without strong government control, they may pursue their goals, which are primarily local and directed towards neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
With the presence of aid organizations such as WFP providing food aid there have still been large numbers of refugees crossing into Iran and Pakistan. The following is reported by Europa (Euopean Union Agency for Refugees):
As of October 2020, around 780 000 Afghan refugees holding Amayesh cards (proof of registration) were registered in the country. In addition, between 2020 and second half of 2022, an estimated number of between 2.1 and 2.6 million undocumented Afghans, including former Amayesh cardholders, were living in Iran.
According to UNHCR for Pakistan, and noting that 3.7m refugees are almost 10% of the population of Afghanistan:
More than 600,000 Afghans have fled to neighbouring Pakistan since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, bringing the number of Afghan refugees in the country to 3.7 million, only 1.32 million of whom are registered with the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR.
Without the presence of NGOs to provide relief, this situation would become dramatically worse.
Pakistan is the most immediately vulnerable, with fighting in Waziristan, Balochistan, and an increase in terror attacks being seen across major cities in the country. There is a desire to establish an IEA-style government in Balochistan. The IEA does not perceive the Pakistani government as a true Islamic state because of its use of common law within the country.
Pakistan's economy has experienced tremendous difficulties over the past two years due to floods, loan dependencies, and violence. This scenario is exploitable for Jihadists, and the pool of fighters to recruit becomes dramatically more available.
Tajikistan is the next most vulnerable candidate for destabilization following a hard exit from Afghanistan. There was a recent small incursion from Jihadists in Afghanistan, where two people tried to enter the country to commit acts of terror. There are significant numbers of fighters in the North that operate under the name Tehrik-e Taliban Tajikistan, who could take advantage of the greater instability and human suffering in Afghanistan to increase their cross-border operations.
Uzbekistan has had small incidents on the border, but there are branches of ISIS dedicated to Uzbekistan. As a border state, Uzbekistan, like Tajikistan, will likely feel the impact of refugees. The scale of Jihadist activity in Afghanistan and the lack of activity isn't a cause for relief but a cause for concern: what are they waiting for?
3.0 Speculative Scenarios
3.1 Partition Outcome
The Islamic Emirate is making the same mistake as the Republic by concentrating power in Kabul and failing to reach the provinces, especially the rural Pashtuns who are the main source of power for the Taliban. Without the support of the rural Pashtuns, the Taliban has no power base. The IEA has placed its power in Kandahar, the traditional seat of strength for the Taliban, and their factions and friction are largely based in the South. The further away from Kandahar, the less real strength they have.
A loss of control scenario would lead to multi-directional conflict, factional fighting, clashes between Islamists, and fighting between other groups opposed to Jihadists. Likely, ethnic-based violence will coalesce into more defined fronts. The human cost would be incalculable.
To contain itself from the South and the Pashtun beliefs, the northern ethnic groups may seek a partition after considerable violence and human cost, leaving the Taliban to the South and then seeking a more modernist state in the North. This is not an illogical long-term outcome, as without the support of the international community, the ability of the IEA to hold Afghanistan together as a country is in some doubt without international aid.
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