I envision three potential scenarios for what happens next: good, bad and ugly.
The good scenario would look like Colombia. After more than 50 years of war and four years of peace talks, the government and the FARC insurgency signed a peace deal in 2016. The rebels agreed to lay down their arms and to be reintegrated into civilian society. There has been some fraying of the accords since then — with accusations of violations from both sides — but the deal has largely held. The civil war has not reignited. The murder rate reached an all-time low in 2017, and although it has increased slightly in the past two years, Colombia remains far more peaceful than in the past.
The bad scenario would look like Lebanon. That country’s ruinous civil war began in 1975 and ended in 1989 with the signing of the Taif Accord. This agreement modified power-sharing among the major sectarian groups — Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze — and its implementation was overseen by Syrian occupiers. The Syrian troops finally left in 2005, but the peace deal has largely held — albeit at a significant price. While Lebanon is technically a democracy, real power is held by Hezbollah, which is both a political movement and a radical Islamist militia. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah has not imposed its fundamentalist views on more secular Lebanese people: Women are free to walk around Beirut without head coverings and alcohol flows freely in restaurants. But Hezbollah dictates who rules, and it uses its Lebanese strongholds to project power into nearby countries and across the world.
The ugly scenario would look like South Vietnam. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords brought an end to the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam, but North Vietnam began violating its terms at once. Two years later, the weakened state of South Vietnam was overrun by a North Vietnamese blitzkrieg. America’s abandoned allies had to flee or be consigned to brutal “reeducation” camps.
If I had to bet now, I would say that the “ugly” scenario is the most likely and the “good” scenario the least likely. The “bad” scenario — with the Taliban dominating an ostensibly democratic government at gunpoint — is in the middle in terms of probability. How bad it would be depends on whether the Taliban would try to enforce their medieval mores on city dwellers, as they did in the 1990s, or whether, like Hezbollah, they would now tolerate different social systems in different parts of the country. The odds are they will be as brutal as ever — though they have promised to be more progressive in the future.
The ultimate outcome depends on how long U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban are undefeated and have shown no willingness to lay down their arms. The government security forces continue to fight hard, but they have been suffering heavy losses. It is doubtful they can maintain their cohesion absent significant U.S. aid in the form of advisers, intelligence, logistics and, especially, air power. South Vietnam was a much stronger state than Afghanistan is today, and it collapsed without those American enablers. So did the Iraqi military in 2014 when faced with an Islamic State onslaught.
The U.S. has already pledged to reduce its troop presence from 14,000 to 8,600 within four and a half months and down to zero within 14 months. The U.S. negotiators, led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have said that the U.S. troop drawdown is conditional on Taliban compliance with the accord — which includes a pledge to cooperate with U.S. forces in fighting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But it ultimately doesn’t matter what an ambassador says. What matters is what President Trump says.
Trump’s aides thought he was committed to partnering with Kurdish forces in northern Syria to fight both Islamic State and Iranian power. They were caught off guard in December 2018 when the president announced a pullout. Afghanistan could be Syria redux. Trump is plainly itching to leave, and could easily decide to pull out whether the Taliban are complying or not just so he will have something to brag about with voters. The deal with the Taliban at least offers a hope of peace — but, paradoxically, realizing its potential will require a more sustained U.S. troop presence than Trump is likely to tolerate.