When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.
The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.
So, as soon as the money dries up—and it will happen faster than Karzai realizes—the Afghanistan National Army will implode. While the Pentagon points to metrics of numbers trained, it does not speak as often about retention. Logistics, triage, and intelligence remain challenges absent U.S. oversight. And while the Afghans have fought ably against Taliban assaults in Kabul and the Afghan special forces are excellent, Afghans have never had an opportunity to prove what they can do (or cannot do) when they are running the Corps level alone. The fact that regional states have reactivated their residual links to warlords should be a sign no one in the White House should ignore.
When the chaos starts, it will be worse in some respects. Just as with the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, the main victories will not be on the battlefield so much as the result of momentum, and so will catch the West by surprise. During the Soviet era and its aftermath, the fighting was limited to Afghanistan itself. The next round of civil war likely will not be. Pakistan should get ready: It will soon learn the meaning of blowback. There is no doubt that the Pakistanis will face blowback for their support of radicals and Taliban terrorism. The issue is not that various Taliban groups will take their fight into Pakistan. There, the Pakistanis will continue to contain the Taliban’s challenge largely to the tribal region. Rather, with the Americans gone, there will be no more restraint on the reconstituted Northern Alliance. Years ago, I had a conversation with one in a position to actually implement what he said: He argued that the only way to get the Pakistanis to stop interfering in Afghanistan was not to meet them at the diplomatic table or ply them with aid and incentives, but to respond in kind. If a bomb goes off in Kabul, he suggested, then one should go off in Lahore. And if an attack occurs in Jalalabad, then there should be two such attacks in Rawalpindi.
When, back in 1997, I was a teaching assistant for an American political history course at Yale University, I took a colleague’s suggestion and asked the students in my section what their earliest political memory was: The earliest any of the 18-21 year olds had? Michael Dukakis in 1988. Americans’ political memory seldom extends back more than a decade. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is longer. Many Afghans and Pakistanis remember that, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the Afghans who were the aggressors across the border, tearing down Pakistani flags and raising the banner of Pushtunistan. This time, history will repeat, but with far greater lethality against ordinary citizens. Perhaps Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence will rue the day they decided to send terrorists into Afghanistan.