A thrust of President Biden’s presidency, has been the defence of democracies at an “inflection point” with repressive forms of governance spreading, and the reassertion of American values. The manner of the withdrawal of the United States (US) from Afghanistan and the return to power of the Taliban has rightly posed questions on the idea of defence of democracy and the credibility of the United States as a partner in that path. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan underestimating the ability of the Taliban to regain power so quickly and without contingency plans in the event of the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces has raised a number of questions for the Biden Presidency. The delay in providing visa to Afghan nationals who worked with the United States government and military has further eroded confidence in the United States. As the United States negotiated with the Taliban for the safe passage of American citizens to Kabul airport for evacuation and scrambled to send additional troops to secure the airport, the conflict in Afghanistan would be remembered as a directionless undertaking from beginning to end.
The United States in Afghanistan: ‘The War on Terror’
President George W. Bush signed into law a joint resolution authorising the use of force against those responsible for attacking the United States on 9/11.The United States went to war in Afghanistan in October 2001 to bring to justice Osama bin-Laden and the al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Nonetheless, over the twenty years of war, the United States’ shifted from the defined goal of counter-terrorism and war efforts against the al-Qaeda and Taliban to counter insurgency operations and a disorganised effort towards nation building. Thus, while the United States tried to build democratic institutions in Afghanistan, its primary focus remained on the military operations in Afghanistan. The result has been that the Afghan institutions lacking support and structure, collapsed in the face of the Taliban resurgence.
The colossal bipartisan investment of America to defeat the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan spanning over four presidencies, two Republican and two Democratic, about 2325 Americans troops gave up their lives, close to 20,690 soldiers were wounded in action,[i] nearly 3,900 U.S. contractors and about 74 journalists and 446 aid/humanitarian workers have died in the Afghanistan since U.S. operations began post 9/11.[ii] NATO and allied troops have also laid down their lives in trying to overthrow the Taliban. The United States spent more than $1 trillion dollars in achieving its shifting goals, many of which proved unattainable. It will continue to pay for the wars long after all troops have reached home as it pays for the health care, disability, burial and other costs for its roughly four million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans which is estimated to cost more than $2 trillion with the costs likely to peak after 2048. The withdrawal of the United States has brought the curtain down on the post-9/11 era, with the Taliban retaking control of the country that served as the base for the attack on America, a full-circle debacle for the United States that will engrave Afghanistan painfully in the national memory.
Repercussions /Aftermath of the Withdrawal
The fear that has gripped the people of Afghanistan is understandable. There are few who believe that the Taliban which has stated that it will bring a new era of peace in Afghanistan, with amnesty for those they have been battling for two decades and a return to normal life. The fear is that the Taliban will roll back two decades of gains by women and ethnic minorities while restricting the work of journalists and NGO/aid workers. There is no evidence for people to believe that the Taliban 2021 would be different from the Taliban of 1996.
Apart from the fear of the Taliban for the local population, the American withdrawal will have long term consequences for both Afghanistan and the region. The first is the defeat of the United States and its partners representing democracy against the Taliban who represent a fundamentalist ideology. The defeat of the military power of the United States and the West by a religious ideology, backed by local following, that fought with knowledge of the topography and conviction that the United States would have to leave one day. Now the Taliban control more parts of the country than they did when they lost power, and they are better armed, having seized the weapons that America gave to the Afghan army, and they have now won the ultimate affirmation: defeating a superpower. This has been achieved under a President who campaigned on the need to protect and defend democracies, and whose Interim National Security Strategy Guidelines states that the United States faces threats of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states.[iii]
The countries that have gained influence in Afghanistan are Pakistan, Russia and China, of them Russia and China have been identified by the Biden administration as destabilising and assertive powers[iv] that are in competition with the United States. Both China and Russia are in talks with the Taliban and have got assurances from the Taliban for the reconstruction and reconciliation process. Russia has hailed the Taliban's pledge to combat drug trafficking and stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan via Central Asia. Nonetheless, Russia has not yet made any comments on recognising the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Chinese interests include economic interest in Afghanistan. Apart from the large deposits of rare earth minerals, China would try to influence Afghanistan to support the Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI). Chinese investments in resource projects could potentially follow a restoration of order to Afghanistan’s economy. As members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China may use their veto to dilute sanctions and other actions against the Taliban.
The second and perhaps the long-term consequence would be the installation of Sharia law in Afghanistan. The threat to rights of the girl child and women is already being discussed. The laws would also be used to persecute and/or threaten minority communities as also people who are in occupations not deemed Islamic by the Taliban such as musicians, sportspersons etc. The views of the Taliban may lead to terrorist groups to find a supportive area to regroup as the al-Qaeda did in the past. While the statements by the Biden administration have stated that they have been able to defeat the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the ideology and views that the al-Qaeda promoted continue to be present. Groups such al-Qaeda, ISIS and other likeminded extremist groups have seeded franchises which may take root in Afghanistan again. Terrorism from Afghanistan has become the primary concern for the nations in the immediate neighbourhood of Afghanistan. Three Central Asian nations share a border with Afghanistan – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. All three ramped up security, held military drills and moved more servicemen and weaponry to their borders with the war-torn nation in recent weeks. Russia has also conducted a number of military exercises in the region and is supportive of Central Asian nation’s efforts to secure their borders. To ensure that Central Asia and Russia do not see a rise in extremist groups, Russia over the past year has been in talks with the Taliban. Russia hosted the Taliban for multiple rounds of talks even though the group is officially classified as a banned terrorist organisation in Russia, making any association with it a potential crime. Nonetheless, the talks have allowed Russia to maintain channels of communication with the Taliban. China has been in talks with the Taliban for similar reasons. The Xinjiang province, which borders Afghanistan, is home to 10-million Uygur Muslims. China fears a rise of extremist idea here. India invested in a peaceful Afghanistan and spent more than three billion US dollars on projects—from roads, dams, and electricity-transmission capacity to schools and hospitals. Differing from the United States on the withdrawal strategy, the return of the Taliban presents a security challenge for India. Terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed that target India have ties to the Taliban through the Haqqani Network or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The close connection of Pakistan to both the Taliban and to terrorist groups increases the risk of terrors attacks on India. Anticipating an eventual take over by the Taliban, Indian security forces have been working on contingency plans to address the challenges.
The third lesson to draw is that it is not possible for the United States to either build nations or create armies from scratch in countries that have limited resources, or economy and survives on external aid and has been in a state of civil war for decades. It is also not possible to build an army in a short period of time especially when the local population is distrustful of the government and the United States. Building institutions in a country that has over decades witnessed a systematic destruction of trusted institutions requires time and an understanding of the local needs. Building American style democracy in Afghanistan has failed.
Fourth, America’s standing abroad is profoundly weakened. Washington will have a hard time mobilising its allies to act in concert again—whether for the kind of broad and unified alliance, one of the largest in world history, that formed in Afghanistan after 9/11, or for the type of meagre cobbled-together “coalition of the willing” for the war in Iraq. The United States is still the dominant power in the West, but largely by default. There are not many other powers or leaders offering alternatives. It is hard to see how the United States salvages its reputation or position anytime soon. Lastly, as stated above, for the United States, the costs do not end with its withdrawal from either Afghanistan or Iraq. It would continue to cost the Treasury as it pays for the health care and disability of veterans from the war. America’s longest war will be a lot longer than anyone anticipated two decades ago—or even as it ends.[v]
Critics of the administration point to a poorly planned and chaotic withdrawal without any contingency plans in place. The Biden administration’s claims that they were fulfilling the commitments made by President Trump under the peace deal with the Taliban as also shifting the blame on the Afghan government has been rejected by most. Afghanistan has been in the middle of a conflict and a humanitarian crisis for decades now. It needs to be pointed that this crisis is not that the Afghans started among themselves amid which the rest of the world powers came forward to resolve. The current situation was triggered by outside interference and thereafter invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union (during the Cold War). Since then Afghanistan has been the arena for regional and global powers seeking their own security through military interventions, from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980’s, the United States since 2001, Iran’s support to its clients and the Pakistani support to the mujahedeen groups, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
The other criticism that the Biden administration would have to share is the question on the reliability of the Taliban’s offer to share power with the government of Afghanistan. That they declined to talk to the Afghan government on grounds of historical legitimacy and ideology points to the fact that there was little hope of the Taliban would share power. In establishing a deadline, the Trump administration made a mistake which was carried forward by the Biden administration. The United States used the negotiations as a coverup to leave before it had achieved any of the things that it said the negotiations were designed to do.[vi] Critics point to the fact that the Afghan government was not party to the peace talks and this was not in a position to control its outcomes. They also point to the fact that the Afghan economy and the government, including the security forces continued to be heavily dependent on aid money, intelligence and contractors from the United States. The most striking American misjudgement was the overestimation of the capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).As the administration withdrew troops, contractors, trainers and other specialists from Afghanistan, it created a vacuum which was not possible for the technically challenged Afghan forces to overcome. Even without tactical American military support, the ANDSF should have been in a position to defend major cities and critical military installations. As numerous observers have pointed out, the ANDSF on paper was significantly larger and far better equipped and organised than the Taliban. The government was also unable to meet the challenge and collapsed. Critics state that while it would not have been possible to redeploy forces but a small sustained deployment would have been possible to ensure that the government survived and ensure a planned withdrawal.[vii]
Today it is looking at a situation where the hope is that in return for international credibility and aid, the Taliban would reduce the use of violence, nonetheless, with China and Russia willing to negotiate with the Taliban any leverage that the United States and Europe have would be greatly reduced.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has invoked memories of its withdrawal from Vietnam, while it has also been compared it to the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989. The United States leaves Afghanistan with the Taliban in power, a situation which is similar to when it came to fight a war here. Although the United States may have been successful in eliminating al-Qaeda in the country and reducing the threat of terrorist attacks in the country, it failed in its efforts to build Afghanistan as a nation with strong political, economic and security foundations. It underestimated the ability, the sophistication and capability of the Taliban to regroup. It ignored its history as a political movement and the fact that it had actually governed most of Afghanistan. The United States instead focused on the favourable outcome of direct military battles, emphasised the Taliban’s character as an extremist and terrorist movement, and ignored its development and growth as a broad insurgency and its growing impact as a political and ideological movement.
The lack of transparency in the government and limited oversight on the distribution of financial assistance meant that there was widespread fraud and corruption that ensuredthe Afghan economy remained underdeveloped, the security forces underpaid and the government underfunded. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai complained often about overbearing U.S. political influence. Such “interference” did not allow Afghanistan’s democracy from taking root at a time when the Taliban threat was increasing its presence. Afghanistan’s national political leadership did not build plans on how to fight the Taliban and remained mired in power divisions between regional power brokers and Kabul, and between Pashtuns and the minority Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks.[viii]
President Biden and his predecessor, in turn, were also responding to domestic political consideration. The support for the war in Afghanistan was waning. The military withdrawal from Afghanistan reflects a shift of priorities for the United States, including toward the sharpening great power rivalry with China. Nonetheless, the Biden administration cannot escape the fact that the United States is also responsible for the situation as its stands today in Afghanistan. It is a bipartisan failure, driven by the United States inability to objectively identify the strength of the adversary and asses the ground reality of Afghanistan. While it supported the government and security forces, it was unable to assess the durability of the Taliban and its ideology.
*Dr.Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] US Department of Defence, “Casualty Status as on 21 September 2021,” https://www.defense.gov/casualty.pdf, Accessed on 09 September 2021.
[ii] Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University, “Cost of War,” https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures/2021/WarDeathToll, Accessed on 09 September 2021.
[iii]The White House, “Interim National Security Guidelines”, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf, pg. 06 Accessed on 26 August 2021.
[v]Robin Wright. “Does the Great Retreat from Afghanistan Mark the End of the American Era?,”New Yourk, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/does-the-great-retreat-from-afghanistan-mark-the-endof-the-american-era?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_081621&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_medium=email&bxid=5c48c00f3f92a479b80ea302&cndid=55813299&hasha=2b4a602cb4b4d59e40ada275511442b7&hashb=76798210eed555ad79ace0717cda7c3977b698b7&hashc=10a38a7b20e585565b605b12ee81fb1a8bfdf9558f7871f5ea1e71ac475ca123&esrc=register-page&mbid=CRMNYR012019&utm_content=A&utm_term=TNY_Daily, Accessed on 18 August 2021.
[vi]Isac Chotiner, “How America Failed in Afghanistan,” New York, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-america-failed-in-afghanistan?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_081521&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_medium=email&bxid=6016a86534c509730b78b99d&cndid=63697819&hasha=afcaf0d0a4ff5b50e4b5001aecda9c84&hashb=5b4d489bf7d48b7d752cbee9265ba77516fafc9f&hashc=647f7b45408a1f9b3014a47f1f12a25f9c0912c89da8e7720151410dc4e1fcb5&esrc=AUTO_PRINT&utm_content=A&utm_term=TNY_Daily, Accessed on 18 August 2021.
[vii] Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Reasons for the Collapse of Afghan Forces CIIS Working Draft Report,” https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210816_Cordesman_Sudden_Collapse.pdf?8G.OilPH6D9mfPnqBJ4HpitDeh1k2Xaw, Accessed on 18 August 2021.
[viii] P. Michael McKinley, “We All Lost Afghanistan,” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgzGkZstnMvLNBpSKNvfDlPPBCnfn, Accessed on 18 August 2021