Filling a Punctured Power Vacuum


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in my column ‘The Strategist,’ appears titled “Afghanistan : the consequences of US withdrawal”. Available at the following site


President Biden announced on 14 April 2021 the end of, what is described as, America’s ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan; the announcement came nearly two decades after invasion. A decade earlier, the US proclaimed that they had accomplished their war aims with the ouster of the Taliban and the disposal of Osama bin Laden.  What followed was ten years of a rudderless war that made a futile attempt to transform Afghan society and foist a Western style democracy on its people.

Under the Doha Agreement of February 2020, between the US and Taliban, American forces were to fully withdraw by 01 May 2021 in exchange for Taliban commitment to prevent Afghan soil from being used by terrorists and agreeing to intra-Afghan talks. Even before Biden’s announcement the Taliban had declared they would not participate in any further talks and threatened “consequences” if the withdrawal deadline was shifted. The matter of terrorist use of Afghan territory remains undetermined, while they have reneged on any further intra-Afghan talks. In its twelfth report on 01 June, the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UN, has observed: “The Taliban’s intent appears to be to continue to strengthen its military position as leverage… the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties”. The report also highlights the issue of narcotics in Afghanistan which continues to remain the Taliban’s largest single source of income. Sure enough since 01 May the Taliban have struck at Kabul, Zabul, Logar, Herat, Helmand and Ghor causing over 136 casualties this included a car bombing of a school in the capital resulting in over 85 casualties.  Extrapolating these incidents one can picture the scope, spread and ferocity of the Taliban assault post-withdrawal as they make their inexorable bid to seize unconditional power.

So what of the power vacuum in Afghanistan? While much has been made of the potential of the region to harness its role as the “Heart of Asia” to integrate and stimulate commerce between and outward of the five central Asian states; the reality is the warring nature of polity within and the intrusive external interests that seek to manipulate and control. For Pakistan it is the expansion and consolidation of exclusive Taliban power that would facilitate their bizarre concept of “strategic depth”; China seeks a free hand in the exploitation of Afghan resources irrespective of the dispensation in power; while Iran has been wary of an exclusively pro-Saudi and pro-Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and may be willing to queer he pitch by introducing Shia fighters (ex-Syria) to keep the Afghan cauldron in a state of boil.

In retrospect very little has changed over the last two decades, in fact the period of bloody turmoil has continued for four decades since the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Prior to the US invasion of 2001 the fundamentalist Taliban from 1996 until 2001, provided refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. After being ousted by the US invasion, the Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and has led an insurgency against the government in Kabul for more than nineteen years.  

The question before us: Is the Afghanistan of 2021 indistinguishable from when the Taliban was ousted in 2001? Is it the same ultra-conservative, misogynist, religious and political society that not only ruled but also provided sanctuary to extremist Islamic groups such as the Al-Qaeda and resuscitated terrorists like the militant Islamic State? It would be naïve to believe that two decades later religious zealots would control life, bring about a return to oppression of women, massacre of ethnic and religious minorities and a ban on TV and music. Reason being that an entire generation of Afghans have come of age with some advantages of technology. Admittedly this may be more applicable to the urban areas. However, regional anxieties over the looming power vacuum in Afghanistan in the wake of a pull out are fuelled by the already bleak prospects of reconciliation between warring Afghan groups.

There is a school of thought that believes that U S strategic aims which changed from counter terrorism to the fallacious idea that they could rebuild the nation in a democratic mould, was the belief that became a source of insecurity, instability and Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and indeed the failure of US war aims. The absence of a social system based upon a scientific and irreligious slant to life, a modern structure of justice, and a social contract that would draw inspiration from the need for both rights and duties and respect for civilizational traditions, has opened the doors to chaos, violent extremism and insecurity.  Was it then a convincing proposition to build a democratic state where the social, cultural and religio-political foundations militated against it?

Recent military history will suggest that no interventionary force has left the host in a condition of stability that could take over the reins of governance. The examples of the last century ranging from Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan (Soviet invasion), the Levant, Iraq, Libya and indeed Afghanistan of today do not seem to contradict the aphorism. In all cases it was clearly the tragic friction between the objectives of the intruder and the very foundations of the indigenous society that presaged disaster.

The regional impact of the impending festering situation is more than likely to be a civil war between the Taliban and forces loyal to Kabul. Already the former control over 30% of the land area while fierce fighting for control is going on in 26 of the 34 provinces. The nature of this war is agitated by Pakistan that vigorously advocates the Taliban cause; such a scenario makes a spill over of extremism into neighbouring spaces inevitable. The Americans in the meantime have assured Kabul that they would remain in the region and deploy in a ‘monitor and strike role’. Intriguing what this means operationally, particularly so after two decades of being in Afghanistan with forces that surged to 83,000 troops + 32,000 (NATO) they were unable to fulfil the very same role.

Afghanistan has been invaded since the first millennium BCE by the Mauryans, Greeks, the Caliphate, Mongols, Timurids, Mughals, Sikhs, British, Soviets and the Americans; the invading armies never quite understood the nature of war they were engaged in. While conquest of territory in Afghanistan and to emerge victorious in tactical engagements was more than probable; it was virtually impossible to hold the patchwork of tribal principalities down to a centralised government. Imposition of Western norms without turning to indigenous cultural models of governance and organization was destined for failure.

 History serves as a fertile classroom for structuring civilizational insights. In the absence of such a nuanced approach, no surprise that Afghanistan remains and will continue to be a ‘Graveyard of Empires.’

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