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EFSAS Commentary

President Biden’s fuzzy justification for withdrawal comes at a time of great disquiet in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood


Yesterday’s statement by United States (US) President Joe Biden on the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was along expected lines, but it is another matter altogether whether what he said made logical and strategic sense. There is little doubt that the two-decades-long NATO presence had, especially in the latter half of this period, become essentially a holding operation. It became increasingly clear that the foreign troops lacked the capability to make crippling dents to the Taliban’s terrorist set up, even if the advanced air power that the US had at its disposal and put into efficient use ensured that the Taliban too remained at bay. Nobody really gained from this situation as US resources, both human and fiscal, continued to bleed in Afghanistan. That said, whether the US had a greater responsibility towards Afghanistan and the Afghan people than Biden seemed to suggest is a moot point, one that is increasingly being raised as the Taliban runs rampant across Afghanistan. The Taliban surge, meanwhile, has generated a fair degree of consternation in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood and even beyond, with most countries experiencing their own particular set of challenges from the buoyant Taliban.

Biden contended in his statement, which he delivered after receiving an update from his national security team on the deteriorating security situation on the ground in Afghanistan, that “The current security situation only confirms that just one more year fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely… I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome”. This was, in no uncertain terms, an acceptance that the US had veritably surrendered to the Taliban and its violent ways. It also suggested that earlier generations of Americans who had fought and shed blood in Afghanistan had done so in pursuit of a certain “outcome”, which has now been declared unachievable. That indicates a clear need for the US to introspect and assess why it has chosen repeatedly to embroil itself in long-drawn battles, whether in Vietnam in the last century and in Afghanistan in this, only to discover after years and years of drudgery and combat that it had misjudged its capabilities to begin with, just as it had those of its adversaries. Such misjudgment only serves to detract from the confidence and faith of those who look up to the US’ leadership in the international order.

While informing that the military mission of US troops in Afghanistan would conclude by 31 August, a few weeks ahead of the original schedule, Biden claimed that the US had gone to Afghanistan to prevent another terrorist attack of the scale of 11 September 2001, and that the US military had accomplished that mission. He said, “We achieved those objectives, that's why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, and it's the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country”. Such a point of view is debatable for a number of reasons. If preventing terror attacks on the US was the sole motive, that had more or less been achieved through the military offensives and the bombings that the US unleashed upon Afghan terrorist targets in 2001 and 2002. After that, a small counter-terror contingent was all that ought to have remained in Afghanistan if nation building was not an objective. For the US to effectively run its writ over a sovereign country for two decades and then turn around and say that it had no interest in nation building or the future of the bulk of the Afghan population does not cut ice. The US also cannot deny that it had its fingers deep in every Afghan political pie over these two decades. It influenced Afghan politics and politicians deeply, and guided political developments in the country. Even the participation of the Afghan government in the stuttering intra-Afghan talks was dictated by the US after it concluded, after all, that the Taliban were good enough to talk to and reach agreements with.

Further, if the 9/11 attacks were what caused the US to barge into Afghanistan, the US should have known that the mastermind of those attacks was no longer in Afghanistan, but had been hurriedly whisked away to Pakistan. If Osama Bin Laden was no longer in Afghanistan and the Taliban had been driven out of the country, also to Pakistan, and if bringing about political change, stability, and democracy in Afghanistan were not in the list of US aims and objectives, what then was the US even doing in Afghanistan for all these years? Shouldn’t the US then have been pounding legitimate targets in Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and their ilk being prominent among them, and leaving the Afghan people alone to take on the “responsibility to decide their future”? Intriguingly, the US, throughout this entire period of Pakistan sheltering the US’ most dreaded terrorist enemies and using them as strategic assets to attack US troops in Afghanistan, called Pakistan an ally and even accorded it the status of major non-NATO ally. This at a time when it had become abundantly clear to most of the world that the core and the crux of international terrorism was entrenched firmly in Pakistan. If, indeed, preventing future terrorist attacks on the US was the ultimate aim, it was Pakistan, and not Afghanistan, that should have faced the major brunt of American pressure.

The US, in its tearing hurry to leave Afghanistan, has also set a very dangerous precedent by accepting and legitimizing the Taliban and confabulating with it. The US withdrawal and acceptance of the Taliban may lead to justified calls for a redefinition of terrorism, even if a universally accepted definition has defied consensus till date. If the Taliban, who were terrorists in the eyes of the US for all these years and were responsible for the killing of thousands of US troops are no longer considered terrorists but legitimate stakeholders in Afghanistan, such a warped interpretation will only convince other similarly placed terrorist groups elsewhere in the region that the path of violence and bloodbath was the guaranteed route to success. These terrorist groups would not be totally amiss in concluding that the Taliban succeeded in militarily driving out the US, and that the US troops had no option but to sneakily depart the Bagram airbase in the dead of the night, incognito and unannounced.

With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan having for all intents and purposes been concluded, the Taliban has launched a massive offensive in which it is taking over district after district across the country, including in the north and the west where the Taliban earlier has not been strong. The situation has been unfolding in line with the predictions of many, including the US intelligence services which had warned that the Afghan government would not be able to stand up to the Taliban without the backing of American firepower. The Taliban successes in the north and the west, the two regions from which historically the bulk of the opposition to the Taliban has hailed, has generated some doubt that the predicted prolonged civil war will have enough anti-Taliban legs to be able to hold off for long enough to be classified as such.

The posturing by the Afghan government and the Taliban in this milieu has been interesting. President Ashraf Ghani claimed at a cabinet meeting on 6 July that the Taliban would not be able to make the Afghan government surrender even in the next one hundred years. National Security Advisor Hamdullah Muhib pinned the government’s hopes on seven black hawk choppers that are soon expected to be handed over to the Afghan security forces. Talk of surrender, a hundred years, and seven helicopters does not convey confidence and reassurance. The Taliban, meanwhile, has calmly been saying that it is not in a hurry to capture Kabul. It would appear that for the sake of greater recognition and acceptability the Taliban has reconciled to the reality that it will benefit if it at least conveys an impression of inclusiveness in the new dispensation that will take form in Kabul. This message was reiterated by Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid on 5 July when he said, “The peace talks and process will be accelerated in the coming days … and they are expected to enter an important stage, naturally it will be about peace plans”.

Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid believes that the dangerous situation in Afghanistan “can suck in the neighboring countries. If that happens, that will be the end of Afghanistan”. The Taliban surge in northern Afghanistan has caused countries such as Turkey and Russia to close their consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif. Fleeing the Taliban offensive, over 1,000 Afghan soldiers have fled across the border into Tajikistan causing President Emomali Rakhmon to order the mobilization of 20,000 military reservists to strengthen the border with Afghanistan. Russia, concerned about the impact that Taliban dominance would have on the Central Asian republics that lie to its south, was taken aback by the latest developments in Tajikistan. Russian President VladimirPutin spoke to Rakhmon and assured help. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that factions linked to the Islamic State were now operating in northern Afghanistan. As Russia's envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, put it, “The situation is changing rapidly. The Afghan forces, as they say, have abandoned too many districts. This logically creates nervousness”.

Although it is relieved that US troops are finally leaving its immediate neighbourhood, Iran is simultaneously concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Following a visit by Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to Teheran this week, the Iranian foreign ministry informed in a statement that Afghanistan had figured prominently during the discussions. It added, “The two sides also stressed the need to strengthen intra-Afghan dialogue in Afghanistan which leads to a comprehensive political solution”. Iran had actually acted in this direction as it had hosted an intra-Afghan meeting that Zabiullah Mujahid had indicated was imminent just a few hours before Jaishankar landed in Teheran. The Afghan government’s delegation was headed by former Foreign Minister Yunus Qanuni and the Taliban delegation by Abbas Stanikzai. What transpired at the intra-Afghan meeting remains sketchy as of now.

Afghanistan would certainly have been high on Jaishankar’s list of talking points for his Teheran visit. Heavily invested in Afghanistan’s rebuilding and development over the past twenty years, India would be among the countries that would feel the vacuum left behind by the US departure most acutely. The regional power that was most reluctant to have any truck whatsoever with the Taliban, India has, with a Taliban takeover appearing inevitable, been forced to hold quiet talks with it. The Pakistani National Security Advisor has termed this outreach by India as shameful, a bizarre contention from a country that has ensured the survival of the Taliban and has been the terrorist group’s biggest supporter. As Ahmed Rashid put it, “The Taliban's re-launch would have never happened without Pakistan's help. By 2002, they had been totally wiped out, but by 2004, they were already a major force in Afghanistan”. India, on the other hand, has been constrained to plan the evacuation of its nationals from Afghanistan in the light of the Taliban offensive. Its assessment that engaging with the Taliban may help save Indian lives in Afghanistan cannot really be faulted, nor can India’s evaluation that such engagement may also contribute towards keeping some check on terrorist groups that target India, especially in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

China would also be concerned over the direction that the situation in Afghanistan is taking. Its plan of moving into the vacuum created by the US and pushing to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Kabul would need to take the back seat as of now. China is also concerned that a return of the Taliban at the helm would embolden the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and cause further problems in the restive Xinjiang province.

Pakistan, despite being the Taliban’s main benefactor and one that should stand to gain the most from a Taliban takeover, is also having reservations about that prospect. Pakistan fears that intensified fighting could result in a fresh influx of Afghan refugees into the country. It estimates that half a million Afghans could enter Pakistan in the event of a civil war. Pakistan also fears that some anti-Pakistan terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may prosper under a Taliban regime. The Pakistani daily Dawn touched upon these concerns in an editorial in which it wrote that “As a negotiated settlement eludes Afghanistan, and the grim prospect of large-scale violence begins to haunt that country in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, neighbouring states, specifically Pakistan, have genuine security concerns. However, Pakistan must be ready to confront any refugee crisis, as well as militant activity, emerging out of the post-withdrawal situation in Afghanistan, and terrorist groups must be neutralized before they shed more innocent blood in this country”.

Despite some experts believing that a Taliban controlled Afghan government will provide great strategic depth to Pakistan and help it push India further away from Afghanistan, others are of the view that if the Taliban comes to power, Pakistan’s influence over the group will be at risk. These experts argue that the Taliban will then move their leaders and families from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and that will enable them to build relationships with other countries, including India, largely on their own terms.

The consequences of the ill-considered US withdrawal from Afghanistan may well come back to haunt the US at a later stage in time, but the heat is more immediate and is already being felt in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, where misgivings and trepidation over the evolving volatile situation in Afghanistan are real and widespread.