The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analyses and informed comments on the most significant developments in the MENA region and beyond, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on the cost and consequences of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with an exclusive interview with Gen. John R. Allen, president of the Brookings Institution and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and US Forces in Afghanistan
As the last C-17 cargo jets left the Kabul airport, today — August 31st — marks the end of the two-decades-long American occupation of Afghanistan, now newly under Taliban control. The steady escalation of the Afghan crisis, with images of the chaotic withdrawal of troops and civilians, will be firmly etched in the international collective consciousness for a long time. US President Joe Biden has defended his responsibility for making a "difficult yet correct decision" at a moment of historical shifts in global geopolitics. Despite the non-patronage for laying the foundations for a conclusive end to the US (and NATO)’s 20-year long military presence, his administration's failure to foresee the Afghan government’s structural weaknesses — combined with the mismanagement of evacuation operations and the lack of coordination with allies (essential in such a situation) — has left an indelible mark on the US’ international credibility. “A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun,” stated the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken. “It is one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over”. Nonetheless, as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the country American personnel has left is far different from the international community’s early expectations. As Afghanistan is once again almost entirely under Taliban control, months of deadly fighting across the country and rising uncertainty around their rule leave dire prospects for the country's stability and the future of its population.
Interview with John R. Allen
The US exit strategy
The upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack will now coincide with the consolidation of the second Taliban emirate in Afghanistan, welcomed by celebratory messages from a long-time US enemy, al-Qaeda. The rapid fall of the US-built government in Kabul into the Taliban’s hands and the ensuing messy exit from Afghanistan have raised questions about whether it could have been different.
“We knew the United States would never stay in Afghanistan forever. The real question is not whether we would leave or not, but how we would go. Some people argue that 2,500 troops were needed for the US to be more competitive in the so-called “Great power competition” with China (considerably at the centre of the Biden strategy). Since 1953, we had 25.000 American troops on the Korean Peninsula, when Korea was much worse off than Afghanistan is today. After 70 years, South Korea is the 9th or 10th economy in the world, a very smoothly functioning democracy, and one of the most capable, conventional militaries on the planet. Debating why we would have to have left some troops in Afghanistan for a longer period to create a stable security situation (on which, then, could be build a functioning economy and a government of inclusiveness that would mature in the end into democracy), that will ultimately be the question for historians to answer.”
Was it really worth it?
In 20 years, the Afghanistan’s occupation has claimed the lives of about 250,000 people (between Afghans, NATO troops, and Coalition’s opponents). Overall, this war cost Washington more than 2,000 billion dollars, with significant funds allocated for training and equipping the Afghan armed forces that surrendered to the Taliban advance almost without fighting. Facing the Taliban’s stunning victory, many are now questioning the outcomes of the longest military intervention in US history.
“In Afghanistan, there were 49 other countries with the United States (mostly NATO and partners). Their commitment was made in blood, and it was a moral commitment to the Afghans. Trying to explain whether the losses that we have sustained there were worth it: in Afghanistan’s long history, for only the briefest moment, when we were there fighting on their behalf, the women of that country had an opportunity, its society could reach out and touch modernity for the first time, and it could see the benefits of secularism. Not to the detriment of Islam but to the benefit of connecting constructively into the international community; a community that could help elevate the people of Afghanistan over a long time. During the long and ancient history of a country that has existed between Empires for thousands of years, the people of Afghanistan had the potential for a future for just the briefest moment, and that was given to them by NATO and by countries like Italy and the United States.”
Was “America is back” just rhetoric?
Critics accuse US President Joe Biden and his administration not only for mismanaging the US troop withdrawal but also for leaving a regional vacuum in Central Asia that could be filled by others international powers such as China and Russia.
“Given all the challenges that we face, I think that the term ‘America’s back’ (a wonderful contrast to the ‘America first’ slogan of the Trump administration) was genuinely and universally welcomed by democracies as the idea that America should be leading in the 21st century. Nothing has changed in that basic understanding of geopolitics and geostrategy. Unfortunately, the crisis that we face today, at the humanitarian level, the misery, and the casualties on the ground in Kabul, in many respects seems to cloud this idea and make it difficult for our friends to accept that this is a potential reality. What was at the heart of Biden’s motto is really at the heart of how we Americans and our allies worldwide believe that the 21st century will be defined. The tragedy of the moment we are facing seems to make that uncertain and less clear. But I would ask everyone to consider that we have to think now about the future for all of us, believing that they’re still important in American leadership that can be brought to bear with all of us together as partners, moving forward.”
What future for the US-Afghan relations?
As the era of US military intervention in Central Asia seems to be over, many question the future of Washington’s influence in Afghanistan and if Washington will maintain a bilateral relationship with the new Taliban-led government, especially in anti-Daesh terms.
“We don’t know what kind of a government will ultimately emerge in Kabul. I strongly suspect that it will be an Islamic Emirate, with which the nature of our political, economic, and diplomatic relations could be quite difficult. There are members of the Taliban government that we will encounter in the final form that it takes in Kabul who were leading Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. In some respects, nothing has changed with them. We should expect much more of the same that we saw before (where women are suppressed and there is no real functioning democracy). We should be much more ready for what was before than what might come after. The NATO relationship with Afghanistan would have potentially envisaged some form of a military relationship. I would find it very difficult to believe that the Taliban — at least for a period as they consolidate control of the country — would have any interest in a military relationship with the United States or Afghanistan. Politically, it is just not possible in the US to contemplate one at this time.”
Our Experts' Comments
Planting the seeds of failure in Afghanistan
“The major breakthrough came in 2018, when the Trump administration announced the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, who began direct talks with the Taliban. It was a step forward in the legitimization process.
The resulting 2020 Doha Agreement was neither Afghan-led nor owned but received the unanimous endorsement of the UN Security Council. In a collective suspension of disbelief, the US withdrawal deal in return for safe passage was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a “peace deal”. Nobody questioned the rather strange agreement that was signed between two entities that didn’t recognize each other. Furthermore, with US help, the Taliban also enhanced their legitimacy at the expense of Kabul’s government, which was pressured by the US into releasing some 5,000 Taliban insurgents in its custody.”
Rakesh Sood, Former Indian Diplomat; Foreign Policy and Strategic Affairs Expert; Distinguished Fellow, ORF
The twofold consequences of the Kabul terrorist attack
“The recent terrorist attacks conducted by ISKP has a double effect on the Taliban: internally, it’s a blow to their claims that they can secure the country, that the citizens are going to live peacefully, or that the ‘war is over’, as stated by their spokesperson, Zabihullah Muhajid, during his two conferences since the Taliban conquered Kabul. Externally, it pushes major regional and international players towards a convergence of interests in counterterrorism. The Taliban will play this card, showing themselves as the “good guys” who are able to deal with this new threat coming from the “bad guys”. Their attempt to achieve international credibility through a counterterrorism “partnership” risks obscuring far more urgent issues, like the humanitarian and economic crisis affecting most Afghan populations.”
Giuliano Battiston, Freelance Journalist and ISPI Contributor
Between the Taliban and the Islamic State, the rupture is over
“ISKP's strategy is focused on recruiting new militants, both from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Afghan Taliban, in particular from the hardline Haqqani network, which maintains a strong relationship with Al-Qaeda. The Taliban movement is no longer - if it ever was - a monolithic entity, and its factions' political agenda jeopardizes internal cohesion. While northern and eastern affiliates keep close contact with Al-Qaeda, the Kandahari group led by mullah Baradar might be keen to cut ties with the organization of Ayman al-Zawahiri to obtain international recognition for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban-led government will likely be blackmailed by the Haqqani network and will face mounting pressure from ISKP on a military level. The Taliban were not able to control Al Qaeda's plans in the nineties and won't be in the future, let alone the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State."
Matteo Pugliese, ISPI Associate Research Fellow, Centre on Radicalization and International Terrorism, ISPI
The IS-ISKP conundrum: A tangible threat with transnational ambitions
“The IS-ISKP link is not necessarily material in the sense of logistical provision or the deployment of fighters, but it is particularly expressed in its ideological dimension and centralized propaganda. The recent attack on Kabul airport was claimed within the day by the Islamic State's central agency, Amaq. It is more the overall dynamism of the organization’s transnational propaganda that should be feared. The development of groups affiliated with IS in Afghanistan's neighbor states, whether or not they are linked to ISKP, will feed off the success of the Afghan branch. In this global war against Daesh, the Taliban will be obliged to carry out counter-terrorism actions to satisfy the demands of these neighboring states and obtain international recognition.”
Gabriel Romanche, Afghanistan Analyst, Les Clés Du Moyen-Orient