What Will a Post-NATO Afghanistan Look Like?

February 16, 2014

Marc Simms

Afghan troups marching


With the proposed NATO pull-out at the end of 2014, the security situation in Afghanistan is once again under scrutiny – and with good reason. A long-term security agreement between Washington and Kabul looks increasingly unlikely, raising the possibility of a full NATO withdrawal that would leave Afghanistan to stand alone without direct American or European security assistance.  This article will examine the stability prospects for Afghanistan should NATO leave without some kind of permanent military deployment being left behind.

The Afghan Security Forces: Ready or Not?

Since taking greater responsibility for the security of their country, the Afghan security forces have not performed well. Though they now carry out the vast majority of military and security operations, this increase has been marked by a spike in casualties, both for Afghan military forces and civilians caught in the crossfire with the Taliban.  Poor training is also evident in the increasing number of beatings, lootings, and extrajudicial executions being reported by the UNAMA.

In addition to training problems, there are also issues with recruitment and retention.  While Afghan security forces now number around 345,000 overall, desertion and end-of-service contribute to a loss of around 30,000 troops a year.  The Afghan Air Force also has significant problems with obtaining working replacement parts and the general availability of modern military aircraft, both of which will represent a significant hurdle to future military operations.  As it stands right now, the air force would be limited to a peripheral support role should NATO pull its air assets out of the country.

Even given these apparent limitations, there are questions of how such a large military will be paid for.  Afghanistan’s annual budget is around $1.7 billion, but the amount needed to maintain existing personnel levels is around $4 billion annually. At the moment, this shortfall is being paid for by the United States, but it is not clear how Washington would continue its substantial support without a security agreement in place – especially given the corruption issues that have hounded the Afghan government.  As such, the US military estimates that the Afghan government will only be able to pay 12% of its troops unless new sources of outside funding are found.

It is also worth noting the ethnic character of the Afghan military.  A large majority of its troops and, in particular, its officer corps are of Tajik origin from the north of the country.  This stands in stark contrast to the almost entirely Pashtun Taliban.  Given the nature of Afghan politics, with its strong ethnic component, this is a worrying development, as it frames the conflict with the Taliban in ethnic terms and in doing so contributes to a lack of Pashtun recruits that hinders the growth of a representative national security force.

Possible Scenarios

Militants are rehabilitated into the political process

One possible outcome to a complete withdrawal is that the door may open for bringing militant groups like Hezb-i-Islami and more moderate elements of the Taliban into the government, assuming a round of successful negotiations take place.  This appears to be Karzai’s current strategy, given his talks with the Taliban and stalling on a security agreement with the United States.  Such an approach would have several benefits, such as weakening the insurgency in the south and perhaps even convincing Pakistan that its interests in the country will be given sufficient attention (Pakistan’s support for the Taliban can be linked in part to regional strategic concerns).

However, such an outcome is not without risks – not least that hardline anti-Taliban elements in the country, along with the military, would find such a deal unpalatable.  The Tajik-dominated army already looks upon Karzai with suspicion due to his Pashtun background and attempted mediation with the Taliban.  With potentially large cuts in military spending looming, one source of instability could be Afghanistan’s own outsized security forces, should they perceive the government is acting against the national interest.  Large sections of the Afghan population completely reject the Taliban as a political actor, and thus the path to political rehabilitation is definitely not without its risks.

Deployment or not; the insurgency rages on

The more likely outcome is that, even if some insurgents can be convinced to lay down their arms, violence in the south will continue.  This is especially true if a security agreement allows for foreign troops to remain in the country.

The best guide here may be the history of the Taliban through the 1990s.  Utilizing the weakness of the border and large numbers of students attending militant religious schools in Pakistan, the Taliban were able stage raids across the south and west of the country, eventually consolidating control over various towns and villages.

In particular, Kandahar and the surrounding provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan are at risk.  Kandahar is the traditional homeland of the Taliban movement, and it is here where it is strongest.  Kandahar’s shared border with Pakistan allows Taliban forces to move troops and supplies across the border – a technique that has served them well in the past, and would be very easy to accomplish if, as some suspect, the Taliban are still receiving help from the ISI in Pakistan.

Eventually, Taliban forces would attempt to take Kabul, though not before establishing a secure power base in the southwest.  While the Taliban have been able to carry out numerous terrorist attacks in the region, conventional warfare would pose a much greater logistical challenge, and the Afghan government would certainly use every resource available to hold the capital.

Opium: The criminal ‘x-factor’

Behind the scenes of the fight between well-known actors such as the Taliban and Kabul, there is another factor worth considering: the drug trade. Afghanistan is one of the world’s largest sources of opium for heroin production, most of which passes through Pakistan before finding its way to the rest of the world.  All sides in Afghanistan are involved in the drug trade to fund their activities, and with an increase in violence likely in the near future, they will only become more dependent on this critical source of income.


While the outlook for Afghanistan is currently bleak, there are still signs for cautious optimism.  The possibility of a complete US withdrawal has India, Russia, and China all discussing what kind of aid they would be willing to provide to Afghanistan.  While putting troops on the ground seems very unlikely (and, in the case of Indian troops, needlessly provocative), these countries are in a position to provide funding, arms, and parts which could improve the strategic standing of the Afghan security forces.

The other major factor determining Afghanistan’s future will be the country’s upcoming presidential election.  This will be the first election where Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run, and while he will no doubt remain an influential figure behind the scenes, the uncertainty as to who will succeed him and their approach to Afghanistan’s many problems will have a major impact on the course of the country in the crucial months to come.

Marc Simms is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com

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  • Norman

    Question: what has happened to all the funds poured into training supplying the armed forces of Afghanistan? As for the Opium production that all sides depend upon for income, I presume that the C.I.A. are in that group? Very hard to give up that income. As for anything else needed in the country, if the greed and corruption could be eliminated, but that’s just another exercise in futility.

  • An interesting account.Right on the button on the minority Tajik/Uzbek composition of the Afghan National Army(ANA).The Pashtun ethnicity is the majority ethnicity in Afghanistan and it is under represented perhaps vastly underrepresented in the ANA.This factor, apart from the lack of finances if the US withdraws completely from Afghanistan(which currently appears to be a likely eventuality), would create headaches for the post-Karzai government.

  • Peter


  • Well what ever happen they are the one in trouble,no love lost here.

  • Ronald Rajkumar

    An informative and well covered publication.

  • marc

    You correctly underline the Tadjik/uzbek issue, but may be oversee teh Pachtun/pachtun rivalry ie the many centuries old rivalry between the Durrani and Gilzaï clans. it happens that the Durrani have been assuming most of the power since the eighteenth century and their most obdurate opponents were the Gilzaï. Amad Shah Durrani decided to scatter the Gilzaï all over Afghanistan to neutralize them at the beginning of the 18th century. The problem is that most Talibans are Gilzaï and Karzaï is a Durrani! How could they find an agreement that all other ethnic groups will distrust due to the pachtunization effort of the all ruling groups since 1978. The election of the provincial governors in a kind of confederal or federal state would be a viable solution.

  • Chris Russell

    I think the best case scenario is that the BSA is signed immediately following the election and confirmation and the U.S. keeps 15,000 troops, 30,000 U.S. contractors and 30,000 TCN’s/OCN’s to provide training and security for 9 to 20 enduring bases.

    If that does not happen, there will be violence and bloodshed like never before seen in this country. I’ve been here for over a year (this time) so I think it matters.

  • Alexandros

    "opium the criminal x-factor"! I am not fond of the Taliban (end of the day, who is?), but the opium trade resumed when the US forces went into Afghanistan! Before there was no such thing as "opium trade", it was forbidden! Have a look here: http://www.globalresearch.ca/drug-war-american-troops-are-protecting-afghan-opium-u-s-occupation-leads-to-all-time-high-heroin-production/5358053

    And next time you want to write an article of such kind, I would suggest a better research beforehand

  • Sarmajor

    At this point we have again shown an incredible level of naiveté in dealing with a culture that we do not understand while openly declaring progress. In 2006/07 when I was assigned for 6 months with the ANA and another 6 months with the ANP I saw all of the things that people are still observing and reporting today. At the time I thought it was a slow process knowing that we had already invested over 5 years and billions of dollars. With no continuity of effort at a clearly defined end-state all we have done is confused those Afghans that do take their security seriously with new tactics (over the old Eastern Bloc methods) and new, more difficult to maintain equipment. In the field they still rely on the western alliance for fire support, medical evacuation and strategic as well as tactical guidance. It is my belief that no matter how long we are there they will always want us to carry the burden so they have a scapegoat when any issues pop up. If left to their own abilities there will never be a stable government. Delaying that inevitability is not an option. Get out now and keep a good eye on the area by keeping some money rolling into a network of “friends” who can keep us informed about developments. That is something we were lacking in the pre 9-11 days.

  • DockyWocky

    Our illustrious president, in yet another classic example of failure to lead, will allow the corrupt Karzai to get away with totally negating the sacrifice in blood and material the USA made supposedly fighting the world’s leading terrorist organization in the world’s most worthless geographical location – Afghanistan.
    With one swipe of his left-handed imperious self, Obama could solve the entire problem by merely issuing an order for an American drone aircraft to make an example of Karzai by blowing his carcass to smithereens via use of a couple of Hellfire missiles.
    Instead, Obama gives Karzai unneccesary credulity by allowing this two-bit, green caped political hack to make the entire US sacrifice of lives and treasure into nothing.
    Afghanistan deserves Karzai, Afghanistan deserves the cheap political hack, Obama. Both deserve visits from drones.

  • Jesse

    Well you can’t undo the past. Fact is that when the U.S. went in there King Mohammed Zahir Shah and his family were waiting in exile, could have been re-established and would have unified the tribal animosity effectively returning afghanistan to its 1960s levels of civilization (effectively no worse than a banana republic). But no, we couldn’t do that, we had to bring Karzai over who is little better than a Falafal hut resturaunteer and we picked winners and loser for the drug trade (*ahem* General Dostum). Thanks to US short-sightedness from two administrations Afghanistan is not much better off than it was. Really sad. Especially for those of us who have spent so much blood tears and sweat over that country.

  • Tim

    The comment, " Poor training is also evident in the increasing number of beatings, lootings, and extrajudicial executions being reported by the UNAMA" is quite interesting. During my two trips into Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008 I had the opportunity to engaged with young ANA and ANP troops and a couple of senior officers. I find it curious that we think six or eight weeks of training in fighting skills with maybe one or two hours of ethics and humanitarian training will change someone’s values that have been inculcated for 20 years. That might include a young person who might come from a challenged cultural strata where criminal acts were the only resource for putting food on the table and someone else that might have spent four or five years in an ethnic warrior group lead by a war lord who cares not a whit about our or Afghan national objectives and goals. Keep in mind that some research indicates that most entry level troops in the ANA are paid less than an entry level soldier-warrior in a warrior group opposing the ANA. I wonder what our success rate would be in fundamentally changing the average inner city gang member into a stellar citizen if recruited into the U.S. military?

  • Lynda

    For all the importance placed upon developing the ANA and ANP, remarkably the US military did little coordination with Afghans. The composition and size of the combined Afghan security ministries was not shared with the Afghan government, but was based on US estimates which were largely based upon the level of funding authority from Congress. Leading up to the Chicago Conference, the Afghan principles had no information upon which to develop a position. (The reason given me was that that information was classified and could not be shared with Afghan nationals.)

    The surveys on security tend to show that the Afghan people are more concerned about land disputes, murders, robberies, kidnapping, water rights, and the like. The ANP tend to be used as cannon fodder for the ANA, in maintaining check points. (The value of check points has always intrigued me.) When I spoke with the US procurement advisor to the Ministry of Interior, he could not point to any training, mentoring, or other activity that would have prepared the Ministry’s finance and procurement staff to take responsibility for the support contracts being transitioned to the Afghans. Nor was he aware that Afghan procurement law (a World Bank reform initiative) considered this transition as a new contract option, rather than an assignment. Over the years of support, NTM-A had focused on training Afghans battlefield skills, rather than on developing support skills. This oversight is most interesting given the importance of logistics and other support to the warfighter. (I recall a 10:1 ratio, support to warfighter mentioned during the Viet Nam war.)

  • Robert A. Vrilakas

    Iin the haste to Blame Obama for all the ills of Afghanistan we need to do some serious thinking about the problems of inserting our country into a civil war between secular factions in Afghanistan.

    We also need to consider that aside from gaining very little we are exhausting our military by send them bac or multiple tours in that country.

    We are pouring billions into a rathole with no assurance that much of it isn’t siphoned off by Karzai and his buddies.

    To those that feel we should continue to sacrifice soldiers and pour billions doen that drain I would only hope that they are not the same ones bitterly complaining about our national debt.

  • The British, then the Soviets, then we lost generations of soldiers and money only to find that tribals don’t accept foreigners.

    This entire superstructure we’ve built of military force and Washington "aid" doesn’t die easily. Too many vested interests and official US mouths to be fed keeping the war mills going.

    We need the courage to cut and run. We can leave with grace if we admit failure and move on to fighting our own poverty at home.

  • Davor

    Look in what I look-have found, it is not up to date, but for some realization is great.

    AFGHANISTAN ( Doulat and Padshahi ye Afghanistan )

    Afghanistan land is already around -500 BC belonged to the great Persian state. Alexander the Great had conquered A. -330 to -329. During the further century A. was ruled by various invaders. From the 226- western parts of Afghanistan belong to the Persian Sassanid state, and the southern part in th VII century conquered Arabs, and there spread Islam. In X century alternate insurgents Arab- Indian governors against the caliph, with goal to gain independence in the ruling. So at the end of X century in Ghazni became independent ruler Sabuktigin whose dynasty ruled til 1186 in large areas of India, Badakhshan, Turkmenistan and Persia. From the late XII century, the area ruled by various dynasties ( Ghor , Kurt ), a country often attack Mongol and Tatar invaders. real Afghan state ( whose name is known from X century) was founded after the assassination of Nadir Shah of Iran ( 1747 ), Ahmad Khan Abdali ( 1747-73 ) – twice won the Punjab and Delhi.

    In the internal conditions of Afghanistan have intervened in 1838 the British, who in 1839 entered into Kabul and impose a ruler-ward shah Shu. The uprising in Kabul has forced the British to leave Afghanistan in 1842, and on the power comes Dost Mohammed, recognized by Britain as the Emir of Afghanistan. After his death (1863 ) battle for the throne last until 1869, when Dost, Mohammed’s son, won over the Sher Alikhban. In the second half of the XIX century, Afghanistan was the scene of imperialist rivalry between Russia and Britain, whose Afghan wards(tutors-vasals) fighting between themself. In 1907 Russia and Britain have agreed on their spheres of interest in Asia, also including Afghanistan. During the first World War, Afghanistan was neutral. In May 1919 began an armed struggle against the British, who in August 1919 had recognized the independence of Afghanistan. 1924 – 25 Brits encourage rebel elements under the leadership of the Islamic clergy and raised the revolt against Amanullah Khan ( 1919-29 ), during whose reign in Afghanistan are conducted advanced reforms. Afghanistan in 1937 concluded under the then ruler Mohamed Zahir shah, with, Iraq, Persia( Iran ) and Turkey the Eastern Entente. Loans and economic transactions of Nazi Germany received a stronger influence in Afghanistan, under the pressure of Britain and the then USSR, German emissaries and agents must in October 1941 to leave Afghanistan, but despite Afghanistan until the end of the Second World war refused to join the anti-fascist coalition, and in 1946 became a member of the UN. -same year was determined border towards the USSR, and in 1963 towards China.

    evolved in the languages ​​Pashto ( afghan language) – Farsi (Persian ) . Were found fragmentary texts of pashto language of VIII and XIII century. First larger liturgical memorial description was conquest of Swat principality ( 1413-24 ) which the author himself conqueror sheik Mali , and his successor Kadu Khan writes about his wartime successes ( 1494 ). A new impulse gets pashto with litterary movement Rosana" who strikes on the reigning sunitisam and seeks social reforms. The founder Sheikh Bayezid writes his work " too lenient news " on the pashto language , Arabic , Farsi and Urdu. The most prominent representative of the feudal pashto poetry was Khushal Khan, chief of Khatak tribes ( 1613-89 ) ; Afzal – Khan Khatak ( XVIII century) wrote a history of Afghan . Abdul Hamid of the tribe Momand (1660-1732) writes pessimistic love poetry. Afghan authors are influenced by the Persians, and less of Indian literature, poetry greatly surpasses fiction. Ahmad Shah Durrani ( 1721-71 ), founder of afghan state, writes songs about his war campaigns and love poetry. When ( due to political events ) at the end of the XIX century, the capital was transferred to Kabul, the importance of the Farsi language growing ( and literature ). However pashto literature flourishes in Peshavar ( today’s Pakistan ), while Mihr-i-Dil-khan established at the end of the XIX century academy in Kandahar for the upliftment of afghan pashto literature. The author of modern pashto prose is- Ahmad Maulavi ( XIX – XX ). At the beginning of the XX century, the so-called. afghanyouth movement who seeks liberation from the British authorities, the spread of education, creating their own intelligence, new literature, etc. Mahmud Khan implemented reforms in poetry ( circa 1900 ), he rises afghan Farsi dialect ( so called.kabuli who is also an official language til 1936). Kandahar and Kabul Academy united in 1937 with the aim of studying the development of pashto language and literature, more recently evolving translation , prose and dramatic literature. The most famous are the new writers Benava, Taraki, Hadim, Ulfat, Salimi, Zahir, Kari, Abdulla, Halil, Latifi and Nazih.

    Afghanistan is a constitutional, hereditary monarchy with a male line descendants. A new constitution of the fourth August 1964 abolished the feudal privileges, and members of the ruling dynasty and their relatives can no longer be prime ministers, members of the government, National Assembly and judges of the Supreme Court. The head of state is the king, who has the right of legislative veto. The executive power has a government led by the president and the legislature parliament consisting of the Senate and the National Assembly. 50 senators appointed by the king for life, while the 171 members of the National Assembly are elected by direct ballot in three years. The voting right belongs to all citizens from the age of 20 years, while women are excluded from passive voting rights that have only men 30(?20)-70 years old. At the forefront of reorganized 29 provinces are, instead of the earlier tribal chief, civil governors. The judicial power is exercised by the Supreme Court, as well as provincial and district courts.

    Among the most widespread languages ​​of Afghanistan is one somewhat archaic form of Persian language. More recent efforts go for those that for general state language would adopted pashto, wich is spoken mostly by Afghan ( Pathans ), the dominant group" in Afghanistan.

    Taking into account that about 90 percent of the population was illiterate, for now I do not know, but enough to conclude that a large, if not the biggest problem of afghan is that they are not aware of themselves, their identity, because militant Islam frosted their brains. Therefore I would suggest the following, to get out of their history out something noteworthy, and that are printed small pocket books for soldiers from a couple of pages, that every soldier should get, and it would be good to call a special unit or another by the name of a some of the afghan ruler or a poet. And in order to wake them up.
    Seems to me.

  • Dennis_C

    There is no practical reason to maintain Western troops in Afghanistan. Aside from the opium issue, it presents no threat to Western countries and even neighboring countries.

    The Western withdrawal will unfortunately create a problem greater than the one following the Soviet withdrawal. The government be able to finance the ANP and ANA, thereby providing at least 300,000 trained fighters (complete with their weapons and ammunition) to the highest bidder (ie. warlord). One again the country will be fragmented along tribal lines, but this time with ex-ANA and ex-ANP fighters taking sides according to the warlord willing to pay the highest premium. Even the Taliban will have a difficult time to reassert itself – at least in the north. Kandahar and the south-east has been a lost cause for at least 12 years and will remain under Taliban dominance for the foreseeable future. Al Qaeda remains a formidable international terrorist organization, but is now so distributed across much of the Muslim world that it will have no significant role to play in Afghanistan – nor does it want to do so (as there are bigger fish to fry across the globe).

    So the sooner that Western forces leave, the better – not necessarily for the Afghans but rather for the Western soldiers and their countries.

    What a waste.

  • Mandar Salaye

    Only one scenario is certain that is resurgence of Taliban especialy in Southern and South Western part of Afganistan. Their objective will be to take control of Kabul,and if that suceeds,it will take back this country to similar scenario post withdrawal of Russian forces. Pakistan will ensure that Taliban take control of these two regions and ultimately takeover Kabul for their own strategic purpose. ANP will be controlled by Warlords who will form their fiefdom in own stronholds and ethnicaly strong bases with already acquired ISAF weapons in hand. Best scenario, fragment the country on the basis of ethnic majority for the purpose of limited independence in local governance, economy. Form a coalition goverment in Kabul representing all groups only to deal with national defence, foreign relations, communication to maintain national identity. This will meet aspirations of all ethnic groups. Looking at the culture, history of the nation, such an option is viable and will help to bring in lasting peace.


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