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What Lies Ahead for Afghanistan

Foreign Policy Brief # 129 | By: Adrian Cole | September 7, 2021

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Policy Summary

The Brits, the French, and the Germans have all left, and as of August 31, the Americans have wrapped up their airlift operation and departed as well.

What happened?

Exit from Afghanistan in some manner became inevitable as soon as George W. Bush declared that the Taliban were the target for reprisals against the atrocities of 9/11. The US mission appeared successful by December, 2001; ousting the Taliban was a pre-condition for rendering Afghanistan toothless as a base for international terrorists.  

In the late fall of 2001, with the Taliban on the run, and the interim president, Hamid Kharzai, getting ready to lead in Kabul, the Taliban sued for peace. The US rebuffed this offer preferring to annihilate the Taliban, and it was at this point that the long war began, the war to rid the country of terrorists and create of it a stable (read democratic) nation, friendly to and pliable by, the United States. 

However, the US administration had arguably just kicked the putative agreement with the Taliban down the road, until the Trump administration sat down with them nearly two decades later, and made that deal. By then the Taliban had, Voldemort-like, reconstituted themselves, and that deal was not going to favor Afghanistan, nor the United States—only the Taliban.

Ridding the country of the Taliban, as far as the Bush administration and its neo-conservative policymakers were concerned, was Step One. Step Two was to ensure terrorists never again set up shop in the country. But how to do that? The first priority was to keep pressure on the Taliban, since unseating them only made the threat they represented airborne, and turned them into an insurgency supported, as it turned out, by sympathetic elements within the Pakistani army, watching from across the border. US Policy gradually evolved into a goal that looked very much like state-building, because policy makers did not see a way out until the Afghans could stand on their own two feet. For that they needed an effective army, civil service, political institutions and a functioning economy. 

None of these goals were achieved over the last twenty years, and historians will argue over why. What happened to the estimated two trillions dollars spent by the United States in the last two decades?  Much of it was siphoned off by holes in the supply chain, and whittled away by chronic corruption. Much of it went to equipment and training of an Afghan army (an estimated 800 billion dollars).   Some of the answers to the questions of the failed Afghan experience can be found in time-honored lessons of nation-building: most notably that nations require a shared sense of belonging among their citizens. 

While Afghans may have some sense of this, the human geography of the country is divided between tribes, languages and economies, as divided as its physical geography. The nation has only been stitched together—like many of the nations in the post-colonial world (especially the Middle East), by occupying powers who prefer to draw lines on maps, and are oblivious to ethnic and sectarian differences amongst locals.  Ironically, as Henry Kissinger argued in The Economist recently, “it was precisely Afghanistan’s fractiousness, inaccessibility and absence of central authority that made it an attractive base for terrorist networks in the first place.”

Photo taken from: CGTN

Other relevant reasons for failure may reside in the very presence of occupying, foreign infidels, whose military tactics often turned large swathes of the population against them. 

This seems counter-intuitive when one looks at the huge numbers of Afghans attempting to board planes destined for the United States, but not so strange if you are on the receiving end of a midnight raid on your house by a bunch of gun-toting foreign soldiers. And not so strange when you consider the extent to which the Kabul government was widely seen as a puppet of the United States.

The truth is however that History repeats itself, kind of. History changes the nature of politics, so that what appears to be a parallel with the past is in fact a wholly new set of circumstances. 

In the case of Afghanistan, it is not yet clear whether the Taliban have evolved.  Certainly, over the last 20 years they have undergone a change of personnel. Old leadership, that was brought up in the seventies and eighties have died, been killed or become sidelined. The new “Talibs” are a different generation. The question is, are they better or worse than the old? Are they the same Taliban, only with Twitter? To what extent is the Taliban ideology alive and well, and persevered in this new generation?  

While the jury may be out, the odds are not great for positive change in this regard. Has the organization picked up skills sufficient to govern a nation state? The answer to this is probably not—how could they have? They have been running a guerilla war for 20 years, not studying finance and policy at institutions of higher learning.

History repeats itself, they say. The first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The lingering question in Afghanistan is, are we seeing a redo of the rule of the Taliban from the nineties? 

Will Afghanistan become a failed state, and in this position will it become a haven for terrorists again, setting it up for a rerun of 9/11? For its part, what will a putative failure in Afghanistan—and a botched exit—mean for the United States, its position as a superpower and its ability to counter terrorism, globally, in the future?

Policy Analysis

Having exited Afghanistan, President Biden then announced that the era of foreign occupation was over, seemingly wiping his hands of the whole experience, and possibly suggesting a major foreign policy sea-change for his country. Questions linger, however, in particular about whether the Taliban will restore Afghanistan to the status quo ante—i.e. a terrorist hot bed, and a threat to US national security, rendering Biden’s desire to move on moot. 

Early indications of the intentions of the Taliban are contradictory. Media reports already point to human rights abuses on their part, suggesting the leopard has not changed its proverbial spots.  While other media reports—ones quoting Taliban political leadership—suggest they want an “inclusive” government, except that women will not likely occupy any senior positions, neither will representatives of the old Afghan government. 

Women, who have been working in the Afghan economy increasingly since the Taliban were unseated in 2001, have constituted a vital and large part of the economy. Female enrollment in schools has increased dramatically in the last twenty years—total educational  enrollment increasing from around one million children to about 10 million—about forty percent of those were girls. Many signs do not bode well for the future of women, however. The Taliban sent women home from work as they captured cities in their recent blitzkrieg across the country. Women, they have said, will be allowed to work “in accordance with Islamic Law.” 

This is ominous. Islamic law is a gargantuan thicket of meaning, comprising reams of literature, interpretation, commentary, precedent, all of which is highly contested. Suggesting Islamic law as the standard for women’s participation in society could mean anything, although precedent suggests less, rather than more freedom. Some organizations have already been told to separate women from men at work, and provide women with a Muharram, a male escort, while out in public. These strictures in and of themselves may not be catastrophic, and organizations might be able to adapt to them.  Of course, it is possible that the Taliban will quickly appreciate the need for women to keep the country going, and find a way to allow them to work without impossible restrictions. But that remains to be seen.

Photo taken from: Reuters

In addition to people, a government needs financial resources. The Taliban have few. As it stands, the economy is on the brink of collapse. Banks are only allowing limited withdrawals because they don’t have cash reserves.  A country is considered aid-dependent when ten percent or more of its revenue come from foreign aid. Afghanistan’s is around 40 percent, according to the World Bank. The country was ranked 173rd of 190 countries in the 2020 Doing Business Survey. Reserves of Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) have been frozen since the Taliban took power, mostly in Germany and the United States, leaving almost nothing for the Taliban to use to govern.  

The IMF is withholding some 400 million dollars, scheduled for delivery this month, until it becomes clear what they are dealing with. According to a recent UN report, the Taliban usually finance themselves from a host of criminal activities, including kidnapping for ransom, extortion, illegal mining and drug trafficking. The former governor of DAB has said any revenue from such activities, while enough to run an insurgency, would be “wholly insufficient” to run a country. 

The EU and the US have both suggested that the Taliban will be judged by their actions. Of special concern is their respect for human rights and democracy, in particular the rights of women and girls. The UN, meanwhile will not be handing over Afghanistan’s seat to the Taliban, yet. It is still held by the ousted Afghan ambassador to the U.N., and the American ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that the organization is not in a position to recognize them.

If the Taliban have an uphill battle, what is the significance of this debacle for the United States? Criticism of the Biden administration and for President Biden himself has been grueling. The President, however, has doubled down on his decisions, with a pugnaciousness somewhat reminiscent of his predecessor. The administration talks of still having “leverage” over the Taliban. 

This no doubt refers largely to financial matters, as withholding of funds will amount to severe sanctions on the country, even if sanctions tend to hurt the population at large as much as if not more than the government. The US also has “over the horizon capabilities,” meaning it can still hit targets remotely, although not as effectively as it could from say, Bagram air base.

Photo taken from: Republic World

In a much larger sense, the US might be diminished in the eyes of its friends and enemies alike, following a messy withdrawal from Kabul. But rumors of its demise are probably premature. As Robert Kaplan pointed out, while the spectacle of the withdrawal was “arresting,” it was more image than substance.  Arguably a much longer withdrawal could have created far more casualties even if it did not provide such dramatic optics.  “Remember,” says Kaplan, “that following the fall of Saigon in 1975 the United States went on to win the cold war.” The real threat, he points out, is internal.

While there is no denying the internal threats to US democracy, there are also other, larger foreign threats to which Biden is now turning, notably Russia and China. Both will no doubt be interested in Afghanistan, although neither probably foolhardy enough to engage militarily, even if there is a promise of rare earth minerals, mining contracts or military bases to fight the Great Game again. Pakistan will be the first to feel any affects of the Taliban takeover. But as the Economist noted earlier this week, the US intelligence community does not seem too concerned on their behalf: “As Afghan districts fell this summer, one senior Western official said there was now a feeling of Schadenfreude in Washington over what Pakistan may be about to reap from the Taliban takeover. “This is what you wanted, boys. We’re off. Good luck with it all,” the official said.”

While the Biden administration and the US at large may need to lick its wounds and endure criticism, and possibly ridicule, for a while, the public conversation will likely soon turn to other threats, and the public mood will continue to move away from large-scale deployments, as the lessons of the two-decade Afghan war sink in. But while America may walk away relatively unscathed, the same will not be true for the Afghans. It will take much more engagement, of the non-military kind, from the international community to prevent it from sliding towards anarchy and state failure.

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