Afghanistan’s next civil war will be far messier

As US negotiations to secure peace with the Taliban drag on, hopes fade for a stable American withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Joe Biden has already said he will ignore a previously agreed deadline to extricate US forces by May 1, hinting instead that soldiers will be gone by next year. His intelligence agencies are pushing back even against this delayed timetable.

Last week, it was reported that American officials fear a Taliban takeover of the country if US forces leave before agreeing an enduring framework for peace. Going by the current pace of talks, this is still some way off.

The Taliban shows no desire to achieve a lasting peace by any means other than war. Thousands of Afghans have died at their hands while talks in the hotels of Doha drag on. Ten policemen were killed in the town of Sangin last week, including a senior commander. A string of other attacks have taken place in other areas. Far from being punished, the group has secured major concessions in return for nothing, including the release of thousands of its prisoners.

None of this should come as a surprise. The Taliban is notoriously opportunistic and well-practised in using Western fatigue to its advantage. And with this fatigue come perfect conditions for a takeover, a tragedy that could condemn Afghans, particularly women, to a government made up of their longstanding oppressors. Such a situation would be shamefully similar to the one that the US-led coalition sought to end almost two decades ago.

It could also turn out to be even worse. Amid a breakdown in governance during recent years, an array of militias has emerged. The war against the Taliban is, in many parts of Afghanistan, waged independently of the government, with the national army lacking the resources to be present. Many of the militias arose as the self-appointed protectors of their local communities. Where they have succeeded, they sometimes supplant the central government’s authority.

But they are now a powder keg for all-out, multi-front and partisan war. Their power is particularly devastating when it is redirected towards the government. On March 20, a militia in Wardak province used a sophisticated guided missile to down an Afghan Air Force helicopter, killing all onboard. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by men loyal to Abdul Ghani Alipour, a former lorry driver turned guerilla commander, whose men refer to him as “Commander Sword”.

Little is yet known about the origin of the weapon Alipour’s men used, but several Afghan government officials have pointed the finger at neighbouring Iran, which manufactures similar missiles and has long been rumoured to have supported Alipour’s local defence operations against the Taliban. Simultaneously, there is mounting evidence that Iran also funds and arms large sections of the Taliban. Elsewhere in the country, other militia groups have operated for years with political and financial support from Pakistan and Turkey.

Afghanistan’s weakened state, increasingly threatened by a resurgent Taliban, could soon be seeing domestic strife exacerbated by foreign powers. Mr Biden must re-assess his approach there quickly. The US and its allies have invested huge resources and a tragic number of lives in the nation’s security. Without long-term commitment and a realistic understanding of the changing security environment, America risks surrendering Afghanistan to the Taliban rule of 20 years ago, or to an even more dangerous and complex civil war.