The international mission to Afghanistan has now come to an end and the Taliban takeover is nearing completion. This has resulted in a furore of criticism focused on the handling of the withdrawal as Western politicians argue over the lack of preparation for an event that few had foreseen. There have also been criticisms of the decision to withdraw itself. The intention of the United States to leave Afghanistan has been very clear over the previous two years and there was significant pressure from the electorate to do so.
Western military interventions are unpopular at home and abroad. In the rare instances that they go well, such as Sierra Leone, they are lauded, but in the far more frequent cases where they are unsuccessful, such as Somalia and Iraq, critics call out Western politicians for their hubris and lack of understanding. There can also be transitory success, such as the French intervention in Mali in 2012 and NATO in Afghanistan after 9/11, which are then followed by reversal. The debates over intervention are not limited to ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, and critics span the political spectrum, not being limited to isolationists, ani-imperialists, and pacifists. The people at the receiving end are as divided as some would rather risk running their own affairs and others dread the absence of the interveners. Afghanistan is what it looks like when the West leaves and it is not a pretty sight.
The Taliban return to power is a catastrophe for Afghanistan and the debacle of the Western withdrawal a disaster for Afghans who chose to work for them and the government. Despite Taliban reassurances that the returning Islamic Emirate will be different to the previous one and not seek retribution, away from the capital massacres have been reported and women are already being sent home. The desperation of the scenes at Kabul’s airport underlines the plain fact that people are literally terrified of the Taliban and would brave Taliban checkpoints and the threat of suicide attacks to get out of the country.
The political earthquake unleashed in the capitals of the West has seen politicians react to the Afghan military and political collapse and the troops were sent back in. The spectacle of the hurried scramble to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghans was a stark contrast to the quiet exit of the US from Bagram airbase, a potent symbol of the US investment in Afghanistan, which is now in Taliban hands. The latter are now in a stronger position than they were since they last held power, controlling more territory, and reaping the benefits of equipment captured from the Afghan security forces. There is an incredible amount of blame flying around, plenty of accusations of betrayal, and shock at how quickly the final collapse occurred.
It is the consequences of the departure of international forces, itself a microcosm of the intervention as a whole, that has provoked a backlash of discontent in the West. When the decision to withdraw US troops was announced there was plenty of objections but nothing on the scale of the last two weeks. There was tacit recognition that the president had made a tough call and hope that Afghanistan would recede from the headlines as the new administration focused on other priorities. The speed of the complete collapse of resistance to the Taliban was unexpected, the evacuation an emergency measure, the troops were sent back in, parents were handing their children to troops, some of whom were killed, hundreds of civilians were killed, the US retaliated against the terror group responsible and then killed a family while defending the airport, and thousands of people didn’t make it out. The military and the diplomatic staff stepped up and did their jobs with distinction, the evacuation itself was unparalleled, but this was overshadowed by the disaster unfolding around them.
There has been little ownership of the debacle as there are political points to be garnered all round and there are plenty of critics of the ‘forever wars’ around to point out the inevitability of the outcome. An exception is President Biden, who has stood by his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. That US forces would eventually leave was a given, being foreign forces, they were always going to leave, it was the timing and conditions under which they would leave that were the real questions. Mr Biden has argued that there would never be a good time to leave and that a line should be drawn under US involvement in Afghanistan as the cost of intervention was outweighed by the benefits. The demise of Al-Qaeda, effectively dismembered by the US, was put forward as a mission accomplished.
Seemingly forgotten in the furore was that there was a strong push from the American public for US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was seen as too costly in terms of blood and money, with little to show for the effort. The sentiment was shared in the UK and elsewhere. It was not limited to the conflict in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by opposition in France to its lead role in Mali and the central Sahel. While support for the armed forces has always been strong, this does not correlate to support for foreign wars, and Western publics have proved unaccepting of the casualties involved. They also react badly to civilian casualties, whether at the hands of insurgents or terrorists, the security forces, or from airstrikes. There was a general perception that the political situation was not improving despite the cost of intervention and that it never would. There was also an argument that foreign intervention was making things worse, resulting in more deaths, and aiding recruitment for the Taliban and the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda. This puts a brake on the nature and length of foreign wars.
Politicians in the US were (and are) acutely aware of the electorates wish to leave and Donald Trump’s election in 2016 came about in part due to a promise to bring the troops home. The Doha agreement with the Taliban set the stage for withdrawal and the Biden administration followed through on it. The US involvement had already been reduced to a counterterrorism mission and training and air support for the Afghan army, and a judgement was made that they could continue without US support (against the advice of the military). Had a decision been made to extend this there would have been a clamour of criticism over remaining in Afghanistan. The US was ready and willing to leave and without them there could be no international force in Afghanistan. Once the decision was made to withdraw US forces everyone else made the decision to leave as well.
The complete and catastrophic collapse of the Afghan military and government shorty after the US withdrawal was an unexpected development that upended the rationale behind leaving. This was despite the clear warning signs that this would happen. There were three delusions that affected policymaking regarding Afghanistan, which ultimately justified the decisions made over the last two years.
The first was that the Afghan security forces could hold their own against the Taliban without outside support. On paper it seemed promising. A 300,000 strong army, trained and equipped by the US, which had been fighting since foreign combat operations ended years before. Some of these soldiers rightly deserved to be called special forces. They also had their own air support, even if wasn’t to the standard of the US. Except it wasn’t really 300,000 strong, as some of the ‘soldiers’ on the payroll didn’t really exist, the training was sometimes by contractors and of variable quality (and recruits often left in the night), and the equipment didn’t always make its way to them. When the US left, the specialists providing maintenance support for the air force left too, so no air support either. The finger of blame pointed at the Afghan army, which largely disintegrated, was a disingenuous attempt to shift responsibility for the mess onto a group of people who were fighting with one arm tied behind their back and who had suffered an appalling casualty rate, with 2019 and 2020 being the worst years.
The second delusion was that a political solution was achievable at the time of the withdrawal. This was what everyone wanted but only on their own terms. The Afghan people who were asked certainly wanted one, and they wanted foreign forces to go, with the caveat that they left after a political solution was achieved. At the risk of misrepresenting the politicians, civil society actors, and public servants working hard to make Afghanistan a democratic nation-state, the corruption dominating every aspect of life in the country crippled this. One example is that positions of authority can be bought, with the cost being borne by the local population through fees and charges. This was a bigger problem outside of the relatively cosmopolitan cities. In the countryside and mountains, where loyalties are local, the population are more conservative in their outlook, and the state has struggled to provide public services. Here the population is vulnerable to the soft power of the Taliban who will maintain law and order and eschew corruption. This is backed by subversion and a willingness to remove anyone opposing them from positions of responsibility.
The idea that Afghanistan could become a functioning democratic nation-state under Western tutelage lay at the heart of this second delusion, one all the more remarkable for not being a war aim when NATO ejected the Taliban from power. The original purpose, post 9/11, was to deal with al-Qaeda, with nation-building tacked on later. The hubris involved in embarking on such an exercise is staggering given that there had never been a situation where all of Afghanistan was ruled directly from Kabul and every foreign intervention had failed. Had the people of Afghanistan not had the misfortune of their country being host to a terrorist group they would not have become subjected to being remade in the foreign image projected onto them from afar. The reasoning behind the withdrawal was that this had been taken as far as possible and would now be in the hands of the Afghan people. The well-documented corruption and horse-trading within Afghan politics, coupled with a resurgent Taliban, meant that it wasn’t in their hands at all.
The third delusion was that the terrorist threat in Afghanistan had been effectively countered. Without this assumption the argument that US interests had been met due to the dismantling of al-Qaeda and there was no need for a US counterterrorism presence would not hold water. The Doha agreement specified that the Taliban would not cooperate with al-Qaeda and US withdrawal was conditional on this. Yet al-Qaeda still had a presence in the country and there was no evidence that the links between them and the Taliban had been broken. Then there is the matter of the Islamic State Khorasan province, an ISIS affiliate which emerged in 2015 and is opposed to the Taliban (although it does have links to the Haqqani network). This is the group responsible for the bomb at Kabul airport and whose targets have included girls’ schools and a maternity ward. They consider the Taliban to be ‘apostates’ and are unequivocally opposed to the West. It is this situation with which ‘hawks’ advocating a continued US presence in Afghanistan are concerned.
The fate of Afghanistan was ultimately decided by domestic US politics as opposed to an assessment of the situation there or the progression of peace talks. For the US to leave, as the electorate wanted, policymakers needed to be able to present a credible image of a nation-state that would survive. This relied on the above delusions of strong security forces and an achievable political solution, neither of which proved to be the case. It was very clear that the Taliban were intent on maximising their position using force and that the Afghan security forces were struggling to counter them. Maps of the areas controlled or contested by the Taliban indicated that the security forces were in a state of crisis and the government was only in control of the cities. What followed was a fait accompli as the supply lines were broken and border crossings taken over. The surprise was not that it happened, but the speed of the advance.
Mr Biden may well prove to be the fall guy for following through on the momentum towards leaving Afghanistan. While the decision rests with him, the pressure to terminate US involvement was strong and there was an expectation that he would do so when he was sworn in. There are few people who would have questioned the need for the US to leave Afghanistan, the question was really about the timing. The debate over the merits of intervening in the first place are irrelevant in the context of what was to be done twenty years later. The President’s legion of critics are firmly focused on the manner of the withdrawal, not the decision to leave, and had the situation deteriorated at a slower pace Afghans may have been spared the trauma of the rushed evacuation, hundreds of people would not be dead, thousands more would not have been trapped in the country, and there would not have been further US casualties. There has been much criticism of the botched planning for the exit of foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans at home and abroad, but this has only come with hindsight and the rush to evacuate civilians hasn’t been limited to Western countries. The only exception of note is that France began to fly people out much earlier and had other countries anticipated the danger they would have acted sooner by actively preventing their nationals going to Afghanistan and dealt with the sluggish process for visa applications by vulnerable Afghans.
Because of the debacle of the withdrawal, the fact that a large and complex airlift just took place and rescued tens of thousands of Afghans and foreigners has been overshadowed by the tragedy it took place in. It is symbolic of the outcome of twenty years of effort and sacrifice by Afghans and their allies working towards a democratic Afghanistan. The clamour for the withdrawal of the remaining foreign forces in Afghanistan was strong. In the US, it was decisive. Few expected that it would lead almost immediately to a Taliban victory and the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The planes have left, and the dust has settled at Kabul’s international airport for the time being, but the consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be borne out for a generation of Afghans. The second part of this blog will address handling of the peace talks between the US and the Taliban and the intra-Afghan talks.
Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.
The series of blogs on the Sahel will continue next month. The Talban takeover of Afghanistan, the evacuation efforts, and impact of the withdrawal of Western forces has been extensively covered in the media. Background on Afghanistan and data on casualties and troop levels are available at: BBC News ‘Taliban are back – what next for Afghanistan? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-49192495.