I never thought I would witness two historic events: the president of the United States requesting cooperation from an erstwhile terrorist enemy, and the commemoration of America’s victims of 9/11 against the backdrop of victory by those who perpetrated the tragedy. Yet, this is what it has come to. President Joe Biden has had to appeal to the Taliban in order to evacuate American and allied citizens as well as their Afghan benefactors from Kabul, as he also prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in the wake of America’s disastrous defeat in Afghanistan. What does this tell us?
The US, backed by its NATO and non-NATO allies, has certainly made a mess of the Afghanistan situation and the so-called war on terror. It launched its military campaign in Afghanistan two decades ago to achieve two main objectives. One was to avenge al-Qaeda’s mega-terrorist attacks on the US by seeking to destroy the group and its harbourers, the Taliban’s extremist Islamic regime. The other was to ensure that Afghanistan would never again become a hub for international terrorism.
The Afghanistan invasion marked the first salvo in America’s declaration of universal war on terrorism. It was initially successful, as it toppled the Taliban rule and dispersed al-Qaeda but didn’t defeat either of them. The two groups’ leaders and their main operatives simply crossed the border into Pakistan to plan a comeback and fight another day. To ensure that Afghanistan was put on the right trajectory, President George W. Bush personally promised its people to help them transform their country from a pariah state under the Taliban into a stable, secure and prosperous country, with a democratic system of governance.
Washington’s approach to fulfilling this promise turned out to be shallow at best, and unworkable at worst. Its combined military and civilian reconstruction campaign was poorly planned, conducted and implemented. These efforts were managed neither within a national framework nor in accord with the needs of the country—one that was socially and culturally mosaicked and traditional, economically impoverished and politically void of the necessary foundations for democratic change.
The US’s war planners and nation builders didn’t understand the depth of the complexity of Afghan society or the region, just as they fell short in Iraq—a state the US invaded in 2003 as part of the elusive war on terror, and where it made a mess as well. In his memoirs, Duty, former US secretary of state Robert Gates makes it clear that essentially America did not discern the intricacies of either Afghanistan or Iraq and that the US is good at toppling regimes but doesn’t know what to replace those regimes with, or how to bring peace to the subjected country.
While spending heavily in both blood and money, the US and its allies undoubtedly made a marked contribution to Afghanistan’s infrastructural development, social services such as education and health, and freedom of media and expression. A younger Afghan generation was nurtured with much hope and aspirations for a bright future. But this was achieved in a patchy and ad hoc manner, as was the training and equipping of the ethno-tribally divided Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), rather than within a coherent national strategy.
American commanders and soldiers were embedded in the Afghan forces as the main decision-makers for security operations. It increasingly became clear over time that without their presence and assistance, especially air cover, the ANSF couldn’t hold together in the face of a determined and ideologically savvy, though poorly trained, equipped, clothed and fed, Taliban opposition. Irrespective of their adherence to and practice of an extremist version of Islam, the Taliban fought for a cause, whereas the bulk of the Afghan forces could not dispense loyalty to a government in Kabul with which they could not identify.
The administrations of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani proved to be highly ethnicised, corrupt and dysfunctional. Washington was constantly warned of this and of Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban, but to no avail. It seemed all it wanted was to have somebody in power in Kabul, even if they were elected fraudulently, as was the case with Karzai and especially Ghani. According to its own intelligence, Washington was also fully informed of Pakistan’s vital assistance to the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and of their links to al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency.
The dramatic collapse of the Kabul government, the ANSF’s disintegration and the Taliban’s easy return to power should have been foreseen by the Biden administration. It should have had, in combination with allies, a contingency plan for evacuation. Instead, we saw the confronting images at Kabul airport—accentuated by Islamic State Khorasan’s (IS-K’s) bombings at the cost of more than 170 lives, including 13 US marines, and many more injured—that have come to define America’s and NATO’s humiliating defeat.
The field is now wide open not only to extremist groups (from al-Qaeda to IS-K) but also to America’s main global state adversaries to fill the power vacuum left by the vanquished US and allies. While Islamabad rejoices over the Taliban’s victory, and Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are happy to see the US out of the region, the biggest winner may well prove to be China, the very power that the US seeks to contain.
China is now in a position to expand its influence from Pakistan towards the Mediterranean. It enjoys strong strategic relations with Pakistan and a strategic cooperation with Iran. It can leverage Iran’s pervasive sway in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As Islamabad is able to ensure the Taliban’s receptiveness to China, Beijing has already reached out to the Taliban, with a view to invest heavily in exploiting Afghanistan’s largely untapped natural resources, such as copper, coal, lithium and oil, and accelerate the Silk Road and China–Pakistan Economic Corridor segments of its Belt and Road Initiative.
President Donald Trump set in motion the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan by sealing the flawed February 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban. But the way Biden has handled the departure stands to be more catastrophic.
A video by Professor Saikal explaining the Afghanistan conflict and how the Taliban came to power, can be accessed here.
Amin Saikal is adjunct professor of social sciences at The University of Western Australia and co-author of Islam beyond borders: the umma in world politics. This article is republished from The Strategist with kind permission from the Australian Public Policy Institute.