The rushed American exit from Afghanistan stands overshadowed by the facile takeover by the Taliban. As per the U.S.’ take on the intervention, it was a limited war of necessity but had transformed into a costly war of choice. Have the Americans and the West betrayed Afghanistan, its people and those who served and laid down their lives in Afghanistan? If yes, the betrayal is not just a story of the last two years and many including America itself might want to question the Biden Administration’s plan.
Everything the U.S. stands for, especially after the War on Terror (WOT), with Biden’s final decision to pull out and Afghanistan falling in control of the Taliban brings the superpower into question. Many had hoped, including those in the U.S., that it will get back into the game under Biden, however, the situation in Afghanistan may put a question mark on that. Vietnam’s collapse pales in comparison to what happened in Afghanistan; South Vietnam fell some two years after U.S. left, the takeover by Taliban took eleven days while American boots were still on ground. While U.S. was humbled in Vietnam, it is on an altogether backfoot in Afghanistan. This, unfortunately, is not all that there is to it; there are two real setbacks: Firstly, the western model of liberal intervention to spread democracy, protect human rights and rule of law has collapsed. Afghanistan is a more glaring example of Iraq, that is also in the same league. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, will the U.S. allies perceive it as a reliable partner anymore?
Boris Johnson spoke of his regret regarding the manner of withdrawal from Afghanistan, telling the public, “We would not have wished to leave in this way”. Furthermore, he dangled the possibility of diplomatic recognition and unfreezing the bank accounts for Afghanistan’s new de facto rulers given that they respect the rights of women and girls, swear off harboring international terrorist groups, and give safe passage to the refugees fleeing the country. Tony Blair was more forthright and wrote, “The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours. The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.”
It was reported in The Washington Post that about two dozen U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan had sent an internal cable in July warning U.S. Secretary of the State, Antony Blinken, of the potential fall of Kabul to the Taliban as the U.S. troops withdraw. The cable was signed on July 13, and offered recommendations on ways to mitigate the crisis and accelerate an evacuation; apparently it was either ignored or not incorporated to prevent the chaos that ensued. The U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that the diplomats’ views shared with Blinken through the channel were incorporated into policy and planning, also that constructive internal dissent is valued and it makes us more effective. However, the chaotic exit – where the allies were not taken on-board nor consulted – indicates otherwise.
The new America appears disinterested in the long-term prospects and future of other countries and regions. Factor this in with the rising rivalry between China and U.S., the mix becomes extremely potent. The plot thickens further if we also look at India’s role in Afghanistan, the region and its newfound love for the U.S. India was a key supporter of the ousted regime in Kabul.
China, on the other hand, might use this window of opportunity to create a strategic foothold in Afghanistan, deepening its convergence with Islamabad, Tehran, and Central Asian Republics.
Jayant Prasad, a former Indian Ambassador to Kabul, rightly said that India is adjusting to the new reality in Afghanistan; it is indeed a sobering moment for India. India had not only invested heavily in Afghanistan but had also worked very hard to acquire strategic space for itself against Pakistan, which included the use of proxy war in the Pak-Afghan region that continues to play out even today. Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), has given substantial funds and other assistance to Pakistani Taliban militants over the years to fight Islamabad. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a senior commander of TTP, confessed in a video released by Pakistan military on how India’s intelligence agency (RAW) and Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), provided help to the TTP. He said, “Relations with NDS and RAW grew and they supported (TTP), extending financial assistance and they also gave targets for each attack for which TTP charged a price.”
India, in its mission to carry out covert operations against Pakistan, had harmed peace in Afghanistan. Since 1990, New Delhi has used Afghan soil to carry out proxy terrorist activities to hit at Pakistan. During these terrorist acts, India employed all the means and methods available in its covert arsenal. India interfered in the internal matters of Afghanistan as it firmly believed that an Indian backed Afghan government would help push Pakistan into a corner, isolate it both regionally and internationally and allow India to begin a two-front war against Pakistan. For years Pakistan has been flagging Indian role in the Baloch separatist movement operationalized through Afghanistan. Additionally, the Kulbhushan Jadhav case exposed Indian designs beyond doubt.
The fronts India opened against Pakistan in Afghanistan were not just confined to proxy wars and support of terrorist outfits. India also backed the Afghan proposed Shahtoot Dam to restrict the flow of water to Pakistan. India, in the name of economic collaboration, infrastructure support and soft power thrust in Afghanistan was constantly working against Pakistan, both on the strategic and economic front. The Afghan media was also under Indian influence and constantly indulged in hate propaganda against Pakistan. Despite this, Pakistan exercised strategic restraint and continued to support Afghanistan. The current turn of events has turned the tables on India, especially since the Taliban – despite the Indian desire – have refused to engage with them unless they mend their behavior. A prominent Taliban leader, Shahabuddin Delawar, in response to the Indian Prime Minister’s statement on the new Afghan regime, warned India not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. He also said, “India will soon know that the Taliban can run the country’s affairs smoothly”. Further to this, Pakistan’s assertion that the TTP and Baloch insurgency was being funded by India and its intelligence agencies to carry out terrorism in Pakistan from Afghan soil is now proven beyond doubt. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, said that TTP is in a state of “disarray” as Indian funding to the group had come to a halt.
The retreat of the Russian Army from Afghanistan in 1988-1989, compared to the situation on the ground post-U.S. withdrawal, showcases chaos, uncertainty, and governance vacuum the U.S. has left behind. The Soviet troop withdrawal was spread over nine months from May 15, 1988 until February 15, 1989. In contrast, the U.S. withdrawal was unorganized and chaotic; also, it is bound to render consequences for international engagement in Afghanistan. America has largely placed the blame of the chaos and Taliban takeover on Ghani’s government and Afghan forces and has defended its larger policy direction. President Biden said that the “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves”. Interestingly, this is the force U.S. propped up, supported, and trained in collaboration with India. The collapse of the Afghan government along with the forces in a matter of days, and not months or years, is a sad reflection on the United States and its coalition partners.
America now claims that after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the battle was over, but then the question arises why they continued to stay. While the Afghanistan withdrawal is possibly motivated by U.S.’ desire to shift focus and resources to compete better with China, nevertheless, the situation is far more complicated in reality. Only time will tell whether the withdrawal made any strategic sense or not; on the other hand, for now all indicators suggest that the U.S. simply fumbled, for reasons perhaps tied to both its domestic and international politics. How the withdrawal debacle will affect the Biden presidency, his administration, and domestic and foreign policy plans remains to be seen. For now he stands severely criticized both domestically and internationally. The recent explosions at the Kabul airport that killed 12 American servicemen has not helped the situation.
Afghanistan, under Taliban, is facing economic strangulation at the hands of the Western powers. The U.S. has now blocked access to the much needed $9.4 billion international reserves of Afghanistan government in U.S. banks. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also suspended $460 million in emergency reserves. The World Bank’s action followed a similar decision taken by IMF and Biden Administration to suspend more than $5.3 billion aid to Afghanistan.
The Middle East Eye has reported that a draft deal regarding the Kabul International Airport is in the works between Turkey, Qatar and the Afghan Taliban. The deal is currently in the process of finalization and will eventually be completed after the U.S. troops’ complete withdrawal from the airport.
China and Russia are the two other countries that have direct stakes in curtailing violence and maintaining order in Afghanistan. Although, China is not seeking to replace the United States as a key security provider for Afghanistan’s Armed Forces, for now it is immersed in bolstering its links with the Taliban for ensuring its own national security interests. China had previously refused to recognize Taliban back in 1996, but a remarkable shift in its policy was seen recently when Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed a Taliban delegation to the Northern port of Tianjin.
On the other hand, Russia is not a new contestant in the Afghan scene. As the Western countries scrambled to get their troops and people out of Kabul while the Taliban took over the city, Russian Embassy announced that its diplomats would continue to work as usual. Russia has effortlessly transitioned into working with the Taliban. Russia will not rush to recognize Taliban as Afghanistan’s government, but, they are showing willingness to engage with them. The Russian government is content to engage with them as long as they provide security guarantee for Central Asia and pledge to prevent terrorist attacks from the Afghan territory. Veteran diplomat Zamir Kabulov went as far as comparing the Taliban favorably to the former government. He said, “If you compare the capacity to make agreements of colleagues and partners, then the Taliban have long seemed to me far more capable than the Kabul puppet government.”
Russian President Putin has told his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, that he shares China’s position and interests in Afghanistan and is also willing to work with China to “prevent foreign forces from interfering and destroying” Afghanistan. Putin said Russia also wants to work with China to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and to prevent the security risks from spilling out of Afghanistan.
President Xi Jinping has urged all parties in Afghanistan to build an open and inclusive political framework, implement moderate, stable policies, and cut ties with all terrorist groups. Both China and Russia have managed to build solid contacts with the Taliban amid the U.S. withdrawal fiasco.
Taliban: The New Face of Afghanistan
The signing of Peace Agreement on February 29, 2020, was the result of a lengthy and challenging process; the aim was to end the long and disastrous war in Afghanistan. Talks between the Taliban and America were initiated in October 2018. During the talks, the U.S. and Taliban leaders met nine times in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. The historic Peace Accord is the first-ever documented effort between America and the Taliban towards peace in Afghanistan. More importantly, it was in some ways recognition of the Taliban as representatives of Afghanistan. It was U.S. that bypassed the government it had propped up to talk to them directly, something the Taliban had demanded for a long time. From the first day, Taliban strengthened their position both in Afghanistan and with important capitals of the world. They were in a position of power in all subsequent negotiations that happened.
The U.S. completed its withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan; Taliban leadership now controls almost all of Afghanistan including Kabul. They stand politically and militarily strengthened with truckloads of American-made weapons under their control. The world is watching with bated breath on how things unfold in Afghanistan; will the Taliban walk the talk? If the Taliban stick to the Peace Agreement, then there will be no need for foreign forces in Afghanistan and peace will be a possibility. More importantly the on ground reality is that Western capitals are only interested in getting their people out. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics, and even India, seem ready to work with the Taliban in Afghanistan, if nothing else, for the lack of choice.
The Taliban are constantly in touch with intelligence outfits of the Western world and are giving them due assurances. The most pertinent being not allowing Afghan land to be used against any other country and that they have no designs beyond Afghanistan. If they deviate from these agreements or are unable to control the situation, there will be serious repercussions, not just for Afghanistan but both regionally and internationally.
The peace initiative has three core points that the Taliban must uphold. First is that the Taliban would engage all the stakeholders in Afghanistan to reach a political settlement. The Taliban have talked extensively about forming an inclusive government, but they have not identified the process of setting up this government. For the international community, this issue is a major concern; not forming an inclusive government may become the biggest hurdle in the way of achieving peace in Afghanistan.
The Taliban would need to take into consideration the sensitivities of all ethnic groups including the majority Pashtun population, and Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities. They would eventually need to make a deal with the political leaders and warlords from all ethnic groups who did not resist the Taliban in exchange for power and resources. Peace will only be an option if an amended constitution, along with a government that reflects the role of all local power brokers, is agreed upon by the Taliban. An inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue is the need of the moment for reaching a political solution and ending the misery of the Afghans.
Secondly, according to the agreement, the Taliban will have to stop terrorist organizations from using Afghan soil against the United States or any other country. They cannot allow any regional or transnational terrorist groups to use Afghan soil to threaten global security. ISIS is among the existing terrorist forces that the Taliban will have to deal with in Afghanistan. The Taliban have also reportedly set up a commission to investigate Islamabad’s complaints about the banned TTP for using Afghanistan to carry out cross-border terrorist attacks. The commission will work towards urging the anti-Pakistan militants to stop violence against the neighboring country. China, Russia, and Central Asian Republics have been given similar assurances. The third thing that was agreed upon is that the Taliban and U.S. troops will stop their violent activities against one another.
Conclusively, the post-withdrawal situation is still developing and everything is very fluid. The Taliban need to show more pragmatism and initiate confidence-building measures to cultivate support and trust, both domestically and internationally. Neighboring states will also have to play a positive role in the peace process. The challenge for the Taliban was not the capture of power, instead it is about legitimacy, recognition, acceptance, and performance, which is a tall order. Resisting foreign occupation for twenty years may not have been easy, but to bring peace and sanity to Afghanistan, which is recognized by all, is far more difficult. Failure is not an option. The Afghan people have suffered enough. Skepticism about the Taliban is evident from the rush of the people trying to get out, falling from planes to die rather than live in Afghanistan and the fear it strikes amongst the women in Afghanistan. The Taliban have changed but so has Afghanistan. The two will have to find a meeting ground.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.