Ten years after the beginning of the US-led intervention, American troops now prepare to leave. Afghan insurgents would probably tell you that foreign invasions always end that way; that Afghanistan is called the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. The same insurgents would also say that the Americans are no better than the Brits or the Soviets, so there is no reason to believe that the former would succeed where the later failed. Journalist Jonathan Landay recently argued that the “Taliban might be lying low,” waiting for the Western troops to leave. As a captured Taliban fighter reportedly phrased it: “You [NATO] have the watches, we [the insurgents] have the time.” Whether or not this sentence reflects the reality of military operations on the ground, I believe that it mirrors the general mood in the country. Hope is long gone. Pessimism is running high, both among Afghans and US decision makers (see previous post). As American troops prepare to leave, the Afghans who have opposed the Taliban start wondering what the future holds. Everyone in Afghanistan knew all along that the US would not stay indefinitely. But now that President Obama gave a departure date, it became hard for us to ignore. Not only do they have the time, but our clock is ticking. As Alissa Rubin pointed out in a recent article, “the Rabbani assassination (…) reminded people of [the insurgents’] ability to shape the next chapter in the country’s history.”
Both Landay and Rubin report that the Taliban are adapting to the changing international environment. They might be losing the capacity to control large chunks of territory, but it does not mean that they are any weaker. They still have the capacity to destabilize entire regions, if not the entire country. Similarly, former Northern Alliance commanders (who no longer claim territorial control) exert power in different ways (patronage networks, political influence, etc.). They, like the Taliban, are getting ready for what will be coming next, which, if worse comes to worst, will be an open civil war. As the establishment of US permanent bases is still under discussion, former commanders start remobilizing their dormant military networks and are getting ready to fight, if necessary. While loads of Afghans would not mind getting rid of former Jihadis, everybody in Afghanistan knows that, at the end of the day, when the Americans leave the country to its fate, they will be the only ones able to protect them from a Taliban comeback. Whether we like it or not, in times of uncertainty, people back the stronger actors. Now the real question is whether the US will allow the renewal of a full-scale civil war, or whether they will keep pushing for some sort of power-sharing agreement, in spite of the recent events (see previous post).