[Epistemic status: Low, I don’t know much about Afghanistan, nor does it interest me much (except for the fascination multiple empires seem to have in expending their treasure there].
There appears to be a near consensus that the Taliban will take over most of Afghanistan soon after the US withdrawal and that they will do this rather quickly.
Will the Taliban take over after the US leaves? If so, how long will it take them?
— 🇷🇺 ANATꙮLY 🤔 KARLIN (@akarlin88) April 15, 2021
This assessment would appear to be backed up by the takeover of multiple provincial centers by the Taliban, who had previously mainly stuck to the countryside, in recent days.
Even on paper, the two sides are more evenly matched than many expect, according to a recent report (h/t Vendetta):
A glance at commonly cited numbers would leave the impression that Afghanistan’s security forces far outnumber the Taliban, by as much as a factor of four or five (352,000 to 60,000). A more nuanced comparison, however, suggests a different story. Most estimates put the number of Taliban frontline fighters around 60,000. The comparable number of Afghan soldiers is about 96,000. The only detailed public estimate of the Taliban’s militia elements—its “holding” force—is around 90,000 individuals. The comparable government force is the police, which has about the same number of people (84,000) in the field. Thus, a purely military comparison of strength shows that the government’s fighting force is only about 1.5 times the strength of the Taliban’s, while the two sides’ holding forces are roughly equivalent.
The Afghan government forces have much more in the way of advanced tech, but they are too low IQ to use most of it effectively. So its value is limited and will plummet further once American advisors leave.
The Taliban believe in what they’re fighting for so their morale is much higher. Most ANDSF soldiers are in it for the paycheck. Corruption is rife and even those “elite” units (read: minimally combat-worthy) end up not getting promised support from other units, with the result that they end up falling into traps, getting massacred, and becoming demoralized themselves.
So on the face of it the situation for the central government in Kabul is bleak.
But will this mean that the Taliban takeover is guaranteed? No. At least, not all of Afghanistan.
The Taliban has traditionally been popular amongst Pashtuns. But they are only 42% of the population, while the Tajiks and Hazara are less enthusiastic about them and constitute 36%. This might be even more true today than a decade or two ago because the Taliban are reputed to have shifted a bit away from Islamic fundamentalism and more into the direction of Pashtun nationalism.
And indeed, check on the LiveUAMap of Afghanistan – a page that will grow in popularity in coming months – shows that virtually all the pins on the map denoting attacks occur in areas where Pashtuns are the majority.
This follows the classical trajectory of guerilla insurgencies against inept government forces in the Middle East/Central Asia. While they make excellent headway against government forces in areas where they have popular support, blending into the local population and enjoying an intelligence advantage, the going gets much harder once they leave those areas. (Hence, say, why Islamic State ultimately never had a chance of capturing Baghdad).
And even during the five years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, there was the breakaway Northern Alliance in the Tajik north-east, as well as anti-Taliban guerilla movements in the Hazara and Aimak areas.
So my guess is that things will end up something like that this time too as opposed to any kind of unitary Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Almost all the Pashtun areas will revert to Taliban rule, where they have no already done so. But the “Northern Alliance” will reconstitute itself and will, at a minimum, retain control over the Tajik, Hazara, and Aimak majority areas.
The key question is whether the Taliban will be able to take control over Kabul.
I suspect it will, because another constant of Afghan history is that outsiders tend to insist on involving themselves. One exotic but not unimaginable scenario is that China takes over the US as a security provider. China has a more legitimate interest in Afghanistan than the US because it provides a direct land route to Iran, whose relations have blossomed in recent years culminating in the signing of a $400B deal this year. China as the world’s biggest construction-industrial complex will be in a position to build the roads, railways, and pipelines to actualize that connection. Possibly China will even help it take back the Pashtun areas, with the help of the technologies and practices used to pacify Xinjiang.
Russia enjoys good relations with the current Afghan government (minor footnote: It was one of the few governments to recognize Crimea). (Incidentally, yet another reason why the fake news about Russia paying Taliban fighters bounties to kill US soldiers was so patently absurd). Iran was on the verge of invading Afghanistan a couple of times in the late 1990s. Both would be perfectly fine with such an arrangement.
This opens the rather amusing prospect of the US returning to tradition and supporting the Taliban in its liberation struggle against the Chicom oppressors and its Russian and Iranian lackeys in another decade. That is, after all, about how long it took the US to let bygones be bygones with Al Qaeda/Al Nusra.