AFGHANISTAN – 5 Scenarios in an uncertain future
By Andrew Richards, founder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Foresight. ()
Scenes of chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Afghanistan have flooded social media, showing thousands of desperate Afghans trying to leave the country. Foreign embassies, including the US and the UK have moved non-stop to get their citizens and diplomatic staff out, while making it seem as if they are shamefully leaving behind Afghan co-workers, and western sympathizers who fear for their lives as the Taliban solidifies its control over the country.
In situations like these, it is important for the church to contemplate a proactive, discerning response and not a reactive, knee-jerk reaction. There need to be hindsight, insight, and, most of all, foresight.
HINDSIGHT: TALIBAN RULE AT $2.26 TRILLION
With most geopolitical analysts warning the US that the Taliban will overrun Afghanistan if they withdraw their troops, the Biden Presidency maintained that it was never the focus of US presence in the country to remain long term and help build a democracy. That said, the fact remains that that is exactly what took place between 2001 when the US and coalition troops ousted the Taliban until 2021 when they left the door open for the militant groups to return. Democracy was built, and now it will stand the test of Islamic extremism under Taliban rule.
Before the US military reached a peace deal with the Taliban, its strategists predicted three scenarios* for Afghanistan once the US withdrew.
- The Afghan government is able to successfully defend major cities from Taliban invasion to such a degree that the Taliban is kept under control long enough for a democracy to flourish.
- If the Afghan military is unable to defeat the Taliban it will reach a peace agreement that would see the Taliban form part of a new government.
- A descent into civil war.
It is clear from the past couple of days that the worst-case scenario has now taken place. This however is not really good news for the Biden administration who insists that they have done everything in their power to make sure either scenarios one or two would play out. This does seem fair considering two decades of military training and billions of dollars of military hardware placed in Afghanistan, for the eventual purpose of making the Afghan Army a force able to withstand the Taliban and defend the freedoms gained. Yet, no matter how much the US government can prove their part as sufficient, many Afghans are blaming the US for abandoning them. President Biden’s actions regarding Afghanistan over the next couple of months will most likely decide his future in the White House.
Coalition forces, with the US taking the lead in terms of the number of troops and military investment ($2.26 trillion), have spent twenty years in Afghanistan, trying to rout out Islamic terrorism that claimed nearly 3,000 American lives on September 11,2001. According to Forbes1, in the twenty years that the US military has been in Afghanistan, the government has spent more keeping the Taliban at bay than the net worth’s of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and the 30 richest billionaires in America, combined. This number includes the more than $85 billion that was spent on equipping and training the Afghan Army for the clear purpose of taking over the security of the country from foreign forces. Yet once foreign troops started with their withdrawal from the country, the Afghan Army (300,000 strong) crumbled in the face of an advancing Taliban. In a matter of a month, the Taliban claimed all 34 provinces and marched onto the capital, Kabul, with little resistance. The only comparison that can be made with this blitzkrieg type of advance by the Taliban, is that of the Islamic State, which at its height held almost a third of Syria and more than 40 percent of Iraq. A failing Iraqi Army also fled in the same way. One question that arises from such a comparison is whether the people of Afghanistan will face the same brutality as the Iraqi people did under Islamic State rule?
In 2020, then US President Donald Trump, signed a peace deal2 with the Taliban, agreeing to withdraw all American troops, and thereby ending America’s longest war. The peace deal also allowed for the release of some 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban gave their promise to take active steps in helping to prevent terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, from using Afghanistan as a base to threaten the security of the US and its allies. For those with common sense to understand the shortcomings of the peace deal, a Taliban takeover of the country was the only real outcome if foreign troops left.
INSIGHT: A NEW TALIBAN
The Taliban rose out of a civil war in the 1990s, coming into prominence in 1994 when they seized control of Kandahar and taking over the central government in Kabul in 1996, where they ruled until US military intervention unseated the group in 2001. One reason for the mass panic as Afghans try to leave the country can be found in the fear that people have for the return of oppressive and brutal rule the Taliban was known for pre-2001. This includes severe suppression of woman’s rights (especially their right to education), restrictions on the work of journalists and NGO workers, and restrictions on the freedom of religion. The Taliban have tried to assure Afghans that they have nothing to fear by insisting that they have changed.
On Tuesday, 17 Aug, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid made the following statements3 in an attempt to settle fears;
- “When it comes to experience and maturity and vision, of course there is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago…
- In terms of media freedom – We are committed to the media within our cultural framework. Nothing should be against Islamic values when it comes to the activities of the media. You in the media should pay attention to [our] shortcomings, so we can serve the nation, but the media should not work against us…
- In terms of their approach towards women – we are committed to the rights of women under the system of sharia law. They are going to be working shoulder to shoulder with us. We would like to assure the international community that there will be no discrimination…
- IN terms of Afghans who fought or worked with the US and NATO – I want to reassure all our countrymen, whoever has worked in the military, in translation, we have given amnesty to everybody, there is no revenge, All those young people who have talent and who have got education, we want them to be here and work for Afghanistan, for their own country. No-one will go after them, no one will ask them why they worked with the Americans”.
Despite promises from the Taliban, many Afghans simply don’t believe them. The promise of regular media conferences to show the rest of the world they are keeping to their promises, can to a large extent fool the international community that has in recent years become somewhat indifferent towards the cries of ordinary Afghans. But for the millions who remember what Taliban rule was like pre-2001, no number of promises can stifle their worst fears.
FORESIGHT: 5 SCENARIOS FOR AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
In contemplating the future of Afghanistan, there are five scenarios that could provide answers to what the future of the country will look like. These are not the only scenarios but could provide a platform for those who seek to think proactively and not reactively. These scenarios, however plausible, are key in helping aid and mission organisations prepare for the future.
The Afghan Bear
As of 17 August 2021, the flag of the Northern Alliance has been raised in Panjshir (the first time since 2001) in a show of resistance against the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, a united military front that fought a defensive war against the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, previously received support from India, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. After the US ousted the Taliban, the alliance disbanded. Now that the Taliban has once again gained control of the country, the Northern Alliance is coming together again. Russia, who already have troops in the Middle East (Syria) could offer the Northern Alliance help in the form of military assistance. The former Soviet Union has a long history in Afghanistan and would most likely spring at the opportunity to replace the United States as the protector of Afghanistan. In the Afghan Bear scenario, the Northern Alliance, accompanied by Russia, would force a civil war against the Taliban. Before the war in Syria, Afghanistan produced the most refugees and internally displaced peoples than any other country at war in the world. If largescale civil war breaks out the Afghan refugee crisis will dwarf those of Syria.
The Church should proactively prepare for a “new war”. Syria, and the subsequent millions of displaced people, caught the church by surprise and resulted in lost opportunities. The intervention of the Afghan bear could provide a new and divine opportunity to reach millions of unreached people with the message of Christ.
2. The Taliban Deception
Qur’an 2:225: “Allah will not hold you accountable for unintentional oaths, but for what you intended in your hearts. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Forbearing.”
The interpretation of this text provides that in certain circumstances, Muslims are not only permitted to lie in order to obtain a positive outcome for the Islamic faith, but required to do so. The peace deal that was signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban in 2020 could be just such a special circumstance. In the Taliban Deception scenario, the Taliban secretly allows al-Qaeda to regroup under their protection. After some years al-Qaeda will once again carry out terrorist attacks against the West, while the Taliban continues to deny their existence. This scenario would most likely embarrass the United States after spending two decades trying to defeat the Islamist group. The US might opt to re-invade Afghanistan, and this time purposefully attempt nation-building.
The Church should be aware of the culture, religion, and worldviews that shape the people of Afghanistan, and especially the DNA of the Taliban. Truth, as defined by Christian values, has a different meaning in the Middle East and should be approached accordingly.
3. A Caliphate Reborn
in 2014 the radical Islamists terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS), proclaimed a worldwide Islamic Caliphate when it drove out Iraqi security forces and seized key Iraqi cities, including Mosul. ISIS seemed unstoppable in its pursuit to claim new lands for the Caliphate as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and even al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb proclaimed their allegiance to the Caliphate. Global coalition forces quickly came together and defeated the Islamic State a mere five years after its founding, as it lost its final territory in 2019.
In the Caliphate Reborn scenario, the remnants of the Islamic State are emboldened by the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan and once again tries to establish an Islamic Caliphate – but this time in Africa. According to the Global Terrorism Index (25 November 2020), ISIS has moved from the Middle East to Africa. The total deaths by ISIS in Sub-Sahara Africa were up by 67% over 2019 and 7 of the 10 countries with the largest increase in terrorism were in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Mozambique, DRC, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Ethiopia”. In 2019 Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the largest number of ISIS-related terrorism deaths at 41% of the total.
There is no doubt that the success of the Taliban will provide a new impetus to Islamic terrorism in Africa and the Church should proactively support believers in Africa to respond in such a way that Christ will be proclaimed, glorified and incarnated.
4. Defining a lasting peace
Taliban commander Muhammed Arif Mustafa told CNN in an interview: “It’s our belief that one day, mujahedin will have victory, and Islamic law will come not to just Afghanistan, but all over the world. We are not in a hurry. We believe it will come one day. Jihad will not end until the last day.” The CNN journalist followed that with “It’s a chilling admission from a group that claims it wants peace.”
The Taliban does indeed want peace. But the peace implemented by the Taliban will differ substantially in definition from the peace that most people understand. The Taliban seeks a peace that will follow the world’s submission to the hegemony of Islamic law. There are three different definitions of peace to consider when understanding the weight of Mustafa’s comments.
- A Western definition of peace: Peace is the absence of war. The past 20 years have proven that this is unobtainable. As long as cultures, religions, and world-views exist, there will be war in the Middle East.
- An Islamic definition of peace: There is no doubt that the Taliban seeks peace, but the peace that comes through submission. This submission, of course, is submission to Muhammad and his concept of Allah in the Quran, in other words, Islam. Theoretically, peace with pagans, that is, not the People of the Book (Christians, Jews, Atheists, etc), is impossible, as they are all to be given a chance to accept Islam or be killed. Peace will therefore only be possible if the whole world becomes Muslim – This cannot happen without war and nullifies the concept of peace.
- A Biblical definition of peace: The Greek word for PEACE (as proclaimed in Colossians 3:15 – Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.) is EIRENE from the verb EIRO which means to join or bind together that which has been broken, divided, or separated. Eirene is the root of our English word “serene” (free of storms or disturbance, marked by utter calm). EIRENE literally pictures the binding or joining together again of that which has been separated, the result being that the separated parts are set at one again. When we believed in Jesus by grace through faith, we were transferred from our old position in Adam to our new, eternal position of peace with God in Christ. As Paul explained, “having been justified by faith, we have PEACE WITH GOD through our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Matthew Henry once asked, “What peace can they have who are not at peace with God?”
The only source of lasting peace in the Middle East, and certainly for the world, is to have peace with God, through Jesus Christ. For the Church It is more imperative than ever before to support ministries that are reaching out to Afghans in the name of Jesus
5. Diaspora – Seed scattered
Christians in Afghanistan are extremely vulnerable to persecution and cannot openly live out their faith. Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts who are caught out face a multitude of consequences for their decision to follow Christ – from immediate death sentences to lengthy prison terms and being rejected by their families. Christians often have only one option, and that is to flee the country as a refugee and seek protection elsewhere.
Afghanistan, with more than 2.5 million refugees outside of the country and more than 4 million internally displaced, is the third-largest producer of refugees in the world. According to the UNHCR4, more than 5.2 million refugees have been repatriated since 2002. This is mainly due to the US and allied military intervention in the country. Since January 2021, however, an estimated 27 000 Afghans have been newly displaced as a result of US troop withdrawal and the Taliban advance across the country. In July, the United Nations warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis with a 29% increase in the number of civilian casualties.
But diaspora has always been a key factor in the advance of the Gospel. Acts 8:3 describes the hardship of how Saul began to destroy the church, going from house to house, dragging off both men and women, and putting them in prison. Verse 4, however, points to the divine purpose as those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Of this scripture, Matthew Henry declares: They, remembering our Master’s rule (when they persecute you in one city, flee to another), dispersed themselves by agreement throughout the regions of Judea and of Samaria; not so much for fear of sufferings, but because they looked upon this as an intimation of Providence to them to scatter. Though persecution may not drive us off from our work, yet it may send us, as a hint of Providence, to work elsewhere.
It will be key for the global church to receive Afghan refugees, Christian and Muslim alike, and use this opportunity to water and nurture the seeds of the Gospel and prepare for the day when they will be able to return.
PRAYING FOR AFGHANISTAN
Open Doors UK provided the following Five ways to pray for Afghanistan today
- Please pray for the small group of believers in the country. They are walking on eggshells and are uncertain who to trust. Pray that they find strength, wisdom, and supernatural peace in God’s promises.
- Pray for the displaced. A new wave of refugees is expected to come from Afghanistan to many parts of the Middle East and the rest of the world. Pray for God’s protection and provision over them in their journeys.
- Pray for the women. Many women fear that the Taliban rule would mean they would be stripped of opportunities for education. Women involved in education during the past years could also be at risk – pray for their protection.
- Pray for the sick. Though under-reported in international media, Covid-19 cases are spiking in the country, and hospitals are limited in what they can offer. There is no certainty as to how the healthcare system will be able to sustain itself with the new Taliban government. Pray that the healthcare system will not collapse.
- Pray that the country will not be a haven for extremists. The Taliban government of 20 years ago is a known enabler of extremist Islamic organisations. With their newfound control over Afghanistan, the country could be host to a new generation of terror groups.
- 1 Forbes. Money spent on US war in Afghanistan.
- 2 CNN. What did the Taliban agree to with Trump?
- 3 Taliban Press Conference 17 August 2021.
- 4 UNHCR Afghanistan Fact Sheet.
- 5 22 Christians to be executed in Afghanistan.
- 6 Urgent calls for prayer for Queragosh.
- Three scenarios for Afghanistan’s future.
- Open Doors – 5 Ways to Pray