Scenario 1. The Taliban sweep continues unabated with mild to moderate hindrance from government forces and the militias but given a rapidly waning government resolve and a weakening ANSF, finally dominate most of Afghanistan and its cities to declare control and victory. They emerge, once again, as Afghanistan’s central authority in Kabul but have a different governance model this time than their 1996-2001 turn at the helm. They are far more pragmatic and deliberate with how they wish to control society and while Islam may still underwrite their own ethos in spirit they are likely to be greatly more inclusive in their second iteration. They will forge a responsible interaction with the international community and respect its covenants quite different from how they dispensed their last act.
Which translates into the following: the Taliban will need to survive and govern requiring sustenance, financial and economic. It is likely that the US will view Taliban 2.0 very differently given their frequent interaction with them at Doha and other places and on the back of an exemplary coordination during withdrawal of the US/NATO forces from Afghanistan. The US government may also subscribe to the consequential failure of the Ghani-Abdullah-Karzai political order to work through with the Taliban to find peace and stability ceding space to another Taliban order. Such convergence of thought and perception will engender a different flavour to the US relationship with the Taliban enabling the latter recognition and requisite support to ensure sustainability. Of course, this lunch too will have its cost.
What may that be is a matter of conjecture at this time with a list of possibilities. Most prominent among them the need to keep US safe from any residual anti-US militancy courtesy remnant Al Qaeda or a resurging IS which the US will like neutralised by the Taliban. It may also include contributing to the American objective to slow China down some in the vicinity, say along the CPEC and its various spokes, necessitating a nimble Taliban trapeze over a minefield. But consider for a moment that Afghanistan, and the whole lot of Taliban cadres, have only known war economy which has kept them afloat. All else, religious and ideational, comes next. This has included receiving handouts from international partners in the name of building Afghan structures while the Taliban have exercised raw power to extract tax and toll in areas under their control. How willing or how quickly can they transfer from such an extractive economy to a sustainable, productive economy is a vexing proposition in the short term, even if promising in the long term. To make this change is the key to the future shape of events in and around Afghanistan.
Conversely, will a war economy find ways to keep alive for short-term sustenance? Say leveraging TTP’s and IS’ nuisance to extract financial, political and economic support to award peace in the neighbourhood? Or through any other denominational militant group which has found refuge and succor in Afghanistan’s fragmented melee? Except that under a renewed Taliban order it can all be better regulated towards Afghan and Taliban, or perhaps, US interests. Taliban’s modus operandi has always permitted greater space to composite groups and their leaderships enabling a convenient subterfuge for calibrated maleficence. A more internationally connected Taliban may thus become the purveyors of the grander geopolitical objectives for their patrons while squeezing maximum benefit to their own advantage. This will engender a perpetual low-intensity conflict in the region even if the narrower Taliban aim is to reap fruits of regulating menace. Unless of course a bigger economic and financial player like China moves in to buy out all others and changes the paradigm of conflict into one of productivity and sustainability.
Scenario 2. Informed by the two publically exposed C-17 sorties of the Indian Air Force conveying a declared cargo of 122MM artillery shells to the government forces amid claims by Afghan government of an overnight provision of a modern air defence system for Bagram — almost as modern and apparently efficacious as Israel’s Iron Dome — it is possible that a beleaguered Ghani government and the ANSF may be getting a shot in the arm by known and some not-so-known friends of the ruling set-up in Kabul against the Taliban. This just might bolster the anti-Taliban forces enough to stall the Taliban advance especially against major cities which may, even if nominally, remain in the control of the Ghani regime. This will ensue another debilitating stalemate even as Afghan state and the society continue to languish in another specter of hopelessness.
This shall keep the Afghan cities and the hinterland mired in strife leaving spaces for the malevolent to find refuge. These will include groups and franchises that have shared the same geographical space with the Taliban for decades in a land bedeviled by conflict where little central authority existed and where militias and militants ruled. These franchises — open for service on payment — will continue to plummet the adjoining regions with terror, insurgency and insurrection for their paying patrons. A number of players intending to keep the region on the boil may thus partake of the service. This shall be the most dangerous consequence for the Afghan state and its people. Afghan society bereft of a functional state may find it sliding into oblivion as the superstructure melts away. Such fragmentation of the state and the people shall be the most disrupting consequence for the entire region.
Scenario 3. In the absence of any of the above two possibilities the Taliban find themselves abandoned by one and all in the region and the world at large. Left to their destiny and stung by the failure of the world to stand by them after a prolonged war — which served the ends of many — the Taliban revert to their old ways and resort to an unforgiving Sharia as their means to govern the state and the society. Over time this assumes a full-blown replication of their former rule moving Afghanistan towards a theological order. This closes Afghanistan to the rest of the world, turns it into a pariah state permitting malevolence to again find root in a sorry repeat. The spectre of two theological states — Iran and Afghanistan — each following a different faith-strain but tied at the umbilical, will either slide into an inevitable conflict or give rise to an increasing occurrence of faith blocs as nations reel like dominoes before faith-driven momentum.
The above three states of varying magnitude in explosive value can be tempered if the Afghans can work towards finding an internal consensus on their state and society and avoid sliding into another internal conflict; if external peddling can stop instead offering Afghans support towards rebuilding, sustaining peace and transforming a war economy into a production-based sustainable political, social and economic order. China has the capacity to alter Afghan destiny only if Afghans themselves are willing to make the change.