As 2013 draws to a close, so, too, does the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Most U.S. forces will be withdrawn in 2014 and the country will also likely see a cut in foreign aid and other resources. What will happen to Afghanistan after the international community packs its bags and goes home? While the future is difficult to predict, current conditions suggest that the country could be in for a rough ride.

Afghanistan After U.S. Withdrawal: A Look Forward

Afghanistan war: Limits U.S. military might

Often considered the “good” war in comparison to its sibling war in Iraq, Afghanistan was supposed to be a model for America’s ability to fight terrorism and remodel failed states. Instead, the war has become more of an example of the limits of U.S. military might. Now, as the American military prepares to withdraw, it’s worth examining the future of Afghanistan.

The Taliban will not be able to re-entrench itself in Afghanistan, at least not in the immediate future. For one, the Taliban has been weakened by repeated U.S. strikes. Yes, their safe havens in Pakistan have allowed the political movement to stay alive, and they do control substantial portions of rural Afghanistan. So even if they are unable to regain control of Afghanistan, they will remain important actors in the years to come.

Second, the Taliban will not be able to seize control of Afghanistan in the short-run due to the increased power of warlords across Afghanistan, and the federal government’s entrenchment in Kabul. On a national scale, the Kabul government is weak, however, it is firmly entrenched in Kabul and a few other key cities. With the national army is being trained and equipped by the U.S. military, it will remain a considerable force—though the federal government will also lack the strength to control the entire nation.

Hamad Karzai might be challenged for presidency

Hamad Karzai is deeply unpopular among many Afghanis, yet no other leader is less unpopular. In the ultimate farce of choosing the lesser of many evils, Afghanistan seems to have few other choices in regards to selecting a national leader. It is possible that a leader could emerge to challenge Karzai, but given national instability, anyone who challenges the status quo might soon find themselves literally in the cross hairs.

Various warlords control districts across Afghanistan, yet most of them are no more than local leaders. Most of these warlords will vehemently oppose any return of Taliban rule, however, many have little love for the federal government. Many seem more content to rule their own areas and want little to do with national unification under either the U.S. backed government or the Taliban. Still, their opposition to the Taliban might be enough to create a loose alliance strong enough to keep the Taliban from seizing Afghanistan’s major cities.

American troops pull-out

At the same time, the pull-out of American troops will also result in many development projects being cut. For one, security will likely deteriorate. Secondly, while the United States and other countries will likely continue to make donations, most likely funding levels will be severely constricted compared to years past.

This will undoubtedly have a major impact on the Afghani economy. Thousands of Afghanis will lose high-paying jobs with NGOs and foreign governments. This, in turn, will put a crimp on discretionary income levels, which will impact restaurants and other major businesses in big cities. As the economy begins to contract, pressure on the national government will only rise, leading to more and more instability.

Afghanistan at a risk

The sad fact is that Afghanistan is at serious risk of descending into a failed state on par with Somalia during the 1990’s. No single party currently has the power to attempt to control the country as a whole. At the same time, the economy remains largely undeveloped and outside of the major cities, many rural communities remain isolated not just from the world but the rest of Afghanistan.

Without a strong leader to unite Afghanistan, the country is likely to limp along, at best, as a loose amalgamation of warlord and Taliban ruled fiefdoms. At worst, the country could descend into pure chaos, which would likely allow for a return of the Taliban, which can promise nominal security and rule of (Islamic) law, if nothing else.