The Next Act in the Afghan Tragedy

The collapse of the US’s position in Afghanistan has limited read-across to its relations with its NATO and Asian allies. But it is a stark reminder of the constraints on the UK as a global power.

This is a desperate time for the people of Afghanistan, as they await their fate under Taliban rule. While too much international aid has been wasted and embezzled, enough still got through to provide substantial improvements in health, education and economic opportunities for millions of Afghans, including many women and girls. All this is now at risk.

Collapse at Speed

Few foresaw how rapidly events would unfold over the last two weeks. The performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) today compares badly with that of its predecessors after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when Afghan military forces hung on successfully for three years. Afghan commanders were prepared to fight for Communist President Mohammad Najibullah with a determination that they completely lacked when asked to defend a purportedly democratic regime 32 years later.

The speed of the collapse caught the US leadership – political and military – entirely unprepared. Despite two decades of deep engagement and legions of expert analysts, the US has appeared desperately out of touch with the political dynamics within a key partner country. If the US was able to misread Afghanistan so profoundly, it is hard to have much confidence in the reliability of its insights on other conflict-torn countries.

What Can be Done

Western influence over the new Afghan government is likely to be very limited. If the Taliban listens to any outsiders after its lightning victory – and there must be doubts on this – it will be Pakistan and China, and perhaps Iran and Russia.

The immediate priority of the UK and allies must therefore be delivering on their humanitarian obligations, starting with the safe evacuation of as many as possible of those Afghan men and women who have worked with them over the last two decades, and whose lives are now at risk as a result. They will also need to decide how generous they are prepared to be in accepting Afghans seeking political asylum, in the face of what could be considerable domestic resistance. Canada has announced it will accept 20,000 Afghans ‘from groups it considers likely targets of the Taliban, including leading women, rights workers and L.G.B.T.Q. people’. Other NATO allies, including the UK, should be prepared to make similarly generous offers.

Not a Failed State

Thankfully, we have not witnessed the destruction of multiple urban centres that a prolonged campaign (and a more capable ANA) might have produced. But an initial wave of arrests and assassinations appears to have begun and much more can be expected, both centrally sanctioned and as part of longstanding tribal and family grievances. Social regression – especially in the rights of women – seems certain.

But it will take time to understand how deep and sustained these trends are likely to be. And circumstances are very different from those facing the Taliban when they seized control of Kabul in 1996. In part as a result of the Taliban’s ‘North First’ strategy, a ‘failed state’ scenario is less likely than it appeared to be only a few weeks ago. Vice President Amrullah Saleh, along with Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, is now seeking to create an anti-Taliban resistance based in the Panjshir Valley, which remains outside Taliban control and which successfully held out against the Taliban throughout the last period of their rule. It is not yet clear whether the Taliban can neutralise this challenge.

On a wider national level, much will depend on how the Taliban treat Afghanistan’s Tajik, Uzbek and – perhaps especially – Hazara minorities. Any one of these groups might provide recruits for a new revolt, supported by one or more of Afghanistan’s neighbours. At least in the short term, though, the comprehensive nature of the Taliban victory means that we are heading for a repressive Islamist state, not a failed one: one that is ruthless in dealing with dissent but that does not have a regime-threatening armed opposition.

There are two further key questions about the future path of the new regime. The first is its approach to the narcotics trade. Afghanistan has been deeply dependent on the opium economy for decades, and may have become even more so under NATO occupation. It produces some 80% of global opium and heroin supplies, with exports thought to be greater than total legal exports as recently as 2019. Both the Taliban and many key figures within the Afghan state are believed to have benefited from the drugs economy.

Given this resilience of the narcotics trade under successive rulers, it is far from clear whether the Taliban will be willing or able to suppress it, as they tried to do during their last period in power. If they do not move to do so quickly, however, their authority could be progressively undermined by the corruption of their senior officials and allies, just as large-scale corruption did so much to undermine the regime they have now overthrown.

The second large uncertainty is whether the Taliban regime will provide sanctuary for groups determined to wage jihadist attacks elsewhere. The initial omens are not good. Thousands of former fighters have been released from Bagram prison, many of whom were affiliated with Al-Qa’ida and Islamic State. Expressions of solidarity with global jihad have long been an important part of the Taliban narrative. Pakistan and China – set to be the Taliban’s most influential partners – will urge the new regime to act against terrorist groups that threaten their territories. They may be less bothered about groups that ‘only’ focus their efforts against India, Central Asia or the West. The US and its allies will seek to maintain the option of military strikes against groups that pose an imminent threat to their own security. Practically speaking, their ability to execute time-sensitive strikes has been severely curtailed by the withdrawal of any military presence in Afghanistan and its neighbours. But they can still deter the revival of jihadist training camps comparable to those which Al-Qa’ida maintained in the country before 9/11.

The Limits of Global Britain

The events of the last four months have been a stark reminder of the constraints on the UK’s global power. President Joe Biden’s decision was taken without significant input from the UK government, and against its preferences. Power in international coalitions flows largely from relative levels of contribution, and the UK gave up on having a substantial combat presence in Afghanistan seven years ago when it left Helmand. Since then, it has been the US that has provided almost all the air power available for support of Afghanistan’s armed forces.

Some MPs have suggested that the UK could have put together an alternative coalition of support for the Afghan government, without the US. Such an idea was always a non-starter. Not only has no other NATO country indicated that it would be prepared to join such a mission, but the idea also underestimates the scale of enduring resource – especially ISR and air power – that the UK and partners would have had to provide if they were to replicate the previous US capability. Anything less than that, moreover, would have risked embroiling UK forces in a war they would have been likely to lose in short order.

Double or Quits

Some commentators have argued that there was no need for the US to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan because, as Richard Haass has suggested, ‘the US & its allies had reached something of an equilibrium at a low sustainable cost’.

This was never a credible option. A US decision to renege on the withdrawal deal which former President Donald Trump had struck with the Taliban would have required a substantial, and indefinite, increase in the US (and perhaps NATO) military commitment in order to prevent a Taliban military victory. While it might have steadied ANA morale for a while, it would also have meant increased casualties among Afghan soldiers and civilians. It would have postponed Taliban rule, perhaps for several years, and this would have been a valuable achievement. But it is understandable, even if regretful, that President Biden – like Trump before him – rejected such an option.

Afghanistan and the Pivot

Biden’s decision was not driven primarily by the need to pivot the Pentagon towards competition with China. Rather, the withdrawal is a continuation of a wider trend in US policy that has been under way for a decade or more. Its origins lie in disillusionment resulting from the failure of liberal state-building interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, already evident in the first years of Barack Obama’s presidency. This shift informed Obama’s decision to ‘lead from behind’ in the 2011 Libyan war, and his unwillingness to lead at all, in military terms, as Syria and Yemen were then engulfed by civil war. This cautious approach continued, and deepened, under President Trump. Biden’s longstanding scepticism towards armed state-building interventions, therefore, is part of a decade-long trend, albeit one with particularly stark consequences today for Afghanistan.

Despite fears to the contrary, the collapse of the US’s position in Afghanistan has limited read-across to its relations with its NATO and Asian allies. These alliances survived US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 largely unscathed. And the Biden administration, in contrast to its predecessor, has made clear that the US sees these core alliances as central to its international position. Nothing in international politics is unconditional or permanent, and there should be no room for complacency. But the US’s key allies in Europe and Asia are all robust, and relatively stable, democracies. They largely share US concerns over Russia and China, and make substantial contributions to common defence preparations. They are, therefore, very far from being client states like Afghanistan, whose domestic power was utterly dependent on external assistance.

The strategic failure in Afghanistan could, however, undermine the credibility of US security commitments elsewhere, and perhaps lead competitor states to test its resolve in more marginal strategic theatres. After the US’s humiliating defeat in Vietnam – the nearest historical parallel to today’s events – the Soviet Union became noticeably more adventurous in the developing world, increasing its military support for ideological allies in Central America, Ethiopia, Southern Africa and the Middle East. It may even have contributed to the Soviet Politburo’s decision to launch a large-scale military intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Four decades later, Russia, China and Iran each have their own reasons to test the strength of peripheral US commitments – for example, by testing the extent of US willingness to support the Syrian Kurds or the government of Iraq.

The Neighbourhood Drama

Most of Afghanistan’s neighbours seem happy that the US is leaving their region, and some appear to be revelling in its humiliation. Pakistan’s leaders are clearly delighted by the Taliban’s victory. The Chinese leadership appears to see the US’s defeat as yet another sign of its inevitable decline.

Their delight may not last for long. After two decades of blaming the West for Afghanistan’s ills, it is now its neighbours who will bear the brunt of the spill-over from the Taliban revolution – whether through mass refugee flows, cross-border jihadism or narco-crime. Having been marginalised for so long, Afghanistan’s neighbours now have the primary responsibility, and incentive, to press the Taliban to behave as a responsible regional state. Despite their ability to provide (or withhold) considerable financial aid, the Western powers seem set to be little more than spectators in the next act of Afghanistan’s tragic story.

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