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Though far from the most promising option, it is the least humiliating. But sooner or later, the United States and Afghanistan will find themselves facing one of Afghanistan’s endgames — whether by choice or not.
1. Nation-Building, Minus the Nation
“I’ll tell you what my best-case scenario would be,” said Frances Z. Brown, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former official on the National Security Council.
That, she said, would see the American-led coalition abandon its efforts to impose a centralized state and instead allow Afghans to build their own state from the bottom-up.
It would mean accepting a central government that acts more like a horse trader among local strongmen and warlords. American and allied troops would guarantee enough security to sustain the state. Afghans would figure out the rest for themselves.
Over time, ideally, Afghans might develop a functioning economy, then something like real democracy and, finally, peace and stability.
“But what we know from other cases is that this takes generations,” Ms. Brown said. “So the 18-month time frames we’ve always had for Afghanistan are not realistic.”
The perpetual occupation necessary for this to work might also doom it. Continued foreign aid incentivizes Afghan elites, who are already on the verge of splintering, to compete rather than come together.
This approach would involve tolerating the Taliban’s presence in rural areas, which are too sparse to be occupied and which the group uses as a base to attack cities. Its horrific bombings and sieges win the Taliban no territory, but do forestall any long-term economic or political progress.
Rolling crises and breakdowns would be built into this model, and Afghans would have to hope that somehow they never derailed the decades of progress needed before lasting change could take hold.
2. Starting Over
If Afghanistan fell or were forced back to square one, it might, some scholars think, be able to rebuild itself from scratch.
After all, humanity lived for millenniums in something resembling low-grade anarchy. Modern nation-states grew out of that chaos only recently.
This would start, either by design or by accident, with the effective collapse of the state and American withdrawal. Because the Taliban are too weak and unpopular to retake the country, as most analysts believe, Afghanistan would splinter.
Out of the ashes, local warlords and strongmen would rise up. Without the United States forcing them to take sides in an all-or-nothing war for the nation’s future, they might eventually accommodate one another, and the Taliban. Their fiefs, once stable, could coalesce over years or decades into a fully realized state.
Research by Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a Columbia University political scientist, suggests that the warlords would gravitate toward the kind of state building that occurred in medieval Europe, where it unfolded organically over centuries.
Jennifer Murtazashvili, a University of Pittsburgh political scientist who studies state building and failure, said the process might unfold more quickly and stably in Afghanistan. The Afghans could do consciously what Europeans stumbled into.
Ms. Murtazashvili has studied rural Afghan communities that, outside the reach of the state, have begun reproducing the basic building blocks of one. But hers is only a theory, untested in modern history.
3. The Somalia Model
In a sign of how far hopes have fallen, the war-torn East African country of Somalia is increasingly being raised as worthy of emulation.
The Afghan government would retreat to major cities. Formally, it would switch to a federal system, as Somalia did in 2012. But power would effectively flow to whichever warlords and strongmen — potentially including the Taliban — rose up in the countryside.
This would, in theory, combine the first two models. The government could reconstitute itself as it mediated between local enclaves that would one day reintegrate with the state.
“This is the outcome we have de facto ended up with, but not in a peaceful sense,” Ms. Murtazashvili said. The government is receding and the warlords rising, but the two are in conflict, not cooperating.
The Somalia model would manage that process of disintegration, not resist it, like crash-landing a plane rather than waiting for it to fall from the sky.
It would leave communities to find their own peace with the Taliban. Some in remote parts of the country are already doing so. But the Taliban is conquering others, at times killing elders whom the group perceives as a threat.
In Somalia itself, this model has found mixed success. Since 2012, parts of the country have stabilized and others have come under warlord rule. Security has improved nationwide, but a devolving state has been left unable to root out extremists, who still carry out devastating attacks.
In a 2007 article, tellingly titled “Governance Without Government,” the political scientist Kenneth Menkhaus wrote that such systems “are intrinsically messy, contradictory, illiberal and constantly renegotiated deals — not ideal choices for governments, but often the best of bad options for weak states.”
4. A Peace That Satisfies No One
The paradox of peace deals is that, while all sides benefit, each fears that it will not do as well as it could — or that its enemies might do too well. This gives each an incentive to block all but the perfect deal, which never appears, perpetuating a conflict that hurts everyone.
This dynamic is so pronounced in Afghanistan that, in 16 years, talks have never advanced far enough to know what each side considers acceptable.
“I doubt the Taliban has even given any thought at a higher level to what a government looks like that it could have a stake in,” said Courtney Cooper, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst and former National Security Council staff member. That uncertainty allows hard-liners on all sides to prevent talks from proceeding, she said.
The fear of losing out is not misplaced. Afghan elites already squabble over control of ministries and lucrative patronage networks. Their infighting grows as those resources shrink, imperiling the country’s stability. In any peace deal, they would need to surrender many or most of those resources to the Taliban — something they are likely to resist.
The Taliban, too, would probably need to surrender or curtail their hopes for dominating an Afghanistan that is now far less receptive to their ideas. That could anger the extremists who are rising in the group’s ranks.
And any American president would risk a political backlash for appearing to usher the Taliban back into power. Veterans and military leaders might reasonably ask what they had fought for.
The clearest winner of any deal might be the Afghans themselves, but they are largely at the mercy of political actors for whom peace is risky.
5. A Post-American Civil War
There is a more pessimistic version of the collapse-then-rebuild model in which warlords compete until one prevails over all.
Afghanistan itself offers a particularly vivid example of this scenario: After the 1992 collapse of the Soviet-backed government there, the country was gripped by a terrible civil war.
If the Americans abandoned the government now in place, that history could repeat.
“There is a strong possibility that this county could splinter, and not in consensual ways,” Ms. Murtazashvili said. “It would be a return to civil war, where each region has its own power base.”
That war culminated, in 1996, with one faction prevailing: the Taliban. It then sheltered Al Qaeda, prompting the American-led invasion and the war still raging all these years later.
That history, too, could repeat itself. Research by Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has found that extremists tend to prevail in a civil war. And the longer a civil war continues, the more it privileges the extremists. That suggests that if the Americans exit Afghanistan, it might not be for long.
6. Perpetual Stalemate
The likeliest outcome may be allowing the status quo to continue, even as all sides suffer under rising violence.
Neither the government nor the Taliban is strong enough to retake control. Outside actors like the United States and Pakistan may be unable to impose their vision of victory, but they can easily afford, both politically and financially, to forestall losing indefinitely.
Foreign aid can sustain the government, even as its control of the country shrinks. There is little to stop the Taliban from carrying out ever more brazen attacks in the capital.
The death toll, already high, would probably rise. An estimated 10,000 Afghan security forces have been killed in the past year, and an average of 10 civilians are killed every day.
Eventually, the stalemate would almost certainly break, hurtling Afghanistan into one of its possible endgames. If that process is allowed to simply happen rather than being voluntarily managed, it would almost certainly be more violent and chaotic. But it is difficult to say what will trigger it.
“It’s hard to think of an analogous case,” said Ms. Brown, the Carnegie Afghanistan expert.
Few modern wars have raged this long, this destructively and with this much outside intervention. If there is an obvious way out, history does not provide it.