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EFSAS Commentary

The great Afghan surrender may herald an inglorious end to the US-led world order that Pakistan helped hasten


The Afghan dream is sadly over. The reference here is not to any dream that the United States (US) and its allies may have had for themselves or for the Afghans, nor to the covetous and exploitative designs that regional countries, especially Pakistan and China, have had towards Afghanistan. The reference is to the promising dreams that were deceitfully dangled before the Afghans by people claiming to be their well-wishers, benefactors and protectors. The rapidity and ease with which the Taliban reached and took over Kabul may have surprised many, including the US government, but for others the writing was on the wall weeks ago. EFSAS, in its Commentary of 09-07-2021, had postulated that the predicted civil war in the country may not even take place due to the absence of credible military opposition to the Taliban, and that the country would fall into Taliban hands quickly, without much of a fight. President Ashraf Ghani, who as brought out in the same commentary had 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, was the first to flee Afghanistan. He did so even before the Taliban entered Kabul. Now in the aftermath of the terrorist takeover, as young Afghans desperate to flee the expected Taliban horrors are falling out of the skies from airborne aircraft and millions of Afghans tremble in trepidation at the fate that awaits them, it must not be lost sight of that none of this would have been happening had it not been for the highly damaging role that Pakistan has played in keeping the Taliban alive, and in sustaining it.

As sad as it has been over the past week to see Afghanistan handed over on a platter to a terrorist grouping that has been globally recognized as such for more than a quarter of a century, the realization that the ‘graveyard of great empires’ had most likely brought the curtains down on an era of unquestioned global dominance by the US is perhaps equally poignant. The rise and the pre-eminence of the US in world affairs has coincided with, and been in no small measure responsible for, one of the most fecund periods in human history, one that generated hope and pride in mankind. Human civilization in its entirety rejoiced at the immense achievement by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of landing a man on the moon half a century ago. Invention after invention that the US has given to the world has benefitted humankind across geographical borders immensely. The liberal and progressive ideas and thoughts that the country has bequeathed to the world have resulted in better and more humane ways of living and relating to each other. That said, the US’ shortsightedness in Afghanistan will severely dent the already considerably diluted faith of most of the world in a benevolent US leadership. The conviction and trust that the US was strong enough and committed enough to fight to protect the way of life it valued and promoted is for all practical purposes gone now.  Scientific prowess and the ability to innovate and invent, in which the US is still the undisputed leader and will continue to remain so, may by themselves no longer guarantee broad based world leadership of the type that the US has become accustomed to.

As images of Taliban terrorists brandishing American weapons and driving around Kabul in American Humvees, of Afghan toddlers being hurled across the airport wall into the hands of Western airmen in the hope that they would be taken to a better future, and of the tearful pleas of young Afghan women make their way onto millions of screens across the world, a sense of guilt is palpable. Seeing the discomfiture of Western leaders as they addressed their countries on Afghanistan and hearing them sell the argument that there was no other way but a quick exit is making this guilt all the more obvious. Most of what US President Joe Biden said in his address after the Taliban tromped into Kabul on 15 August may not actually be incorrect. It is a fact that he inherited a bad deal from his predecessor Donald Trump, whose four years in office were an abject lesson on the irreversible damage that electing an oddball individual, even for a single term, can do. Trump’s deal, however, cannot detract from the fact that at least since 2009 Biden has been a strong and vocal votary of leaving Afghanistan.

The decision by Trump and the follow up by Biden beg the question of whether the strategic, security and economic consequences of a departure from Afghanistan were properly assessed by either of the leaders and their teams. With both of the US’ major rivals, China and Russia, located at Afghanistan’s doorsteps, and with tensions with China high, why the US would want to leave Afghanistan at this juncture appears inexplicable. Biden said in his address that the Afghan withdrawal would enable the US to focus more closely on China. How moving out voluntarily from Afghanistan, an immediate neighbour of China, would help in better focusing US attention on China defies comprehension. The US would not be oblivious to the fact that China and Russia, both of which have courted and befriended the Taliban over the past decade, would quickly slip into place in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as soon as the US left. How and why such a situation was acceptable to the two Presidents is perplexing, especially after the US had invested so much in Afghanistan for twenty long years. A lot of Americans also share this confusion, as a Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed this week. Biden’s popularity in the US has suffered a major dent following the unexpectedly rapid recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The poll also showed that 34 percent of Americans were in favor of continuing military operations in Afghanistan.

Here in The Netherlands, the Dutch language media has reported extensively about China’s longing gaze on Afghanistan’s abundant and untapped mineral resources. China has already begun using rare earths, more than 80 percent of the global stockpile of which it controls, as a geopolitical weapon. The British Financial Times (FT) newspaper reported in February that the Chinese government had proposed restrictions on the production and export of 17 rare earths in order to hit the US arms industry. Rare earths, for example, are crucial components of the F-35 fighter jets. Afghanistan also has a rich natural stockpile of rare earths, in addition to other metals such as gold, silver, iron ore and copper, to name a few. The US Department of Defense had in 2010 termed Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” after American geologists discovered at least $1 trillion worth of the metal in Afghan soil. Lithium is an essential ingredient for producing sustainable batteries for electric cars, and the US requires large amounts of it as it is keen to make at least 40% of all cars electric by 2030. It is baffling to think that the US would not only throw away such massive advantages, but literally hand them over neatly wrapped and ribboned to its most serious adversary. The FT quoted Zhu Yongbiao, professor at Lanzhou University and a Chinese government adviser to Central Asia, as saying that China was benefiting from the “irresponsible behavior of the US”.

For Biden to blame Ghani and the Afghan Army for their lack of spine may be warranted and appropriate, but to use their examples to justify the US’ decision to withdraw does not seem to be correct. If Biden inherited a terrible deal with the Taliban from Trump, what Ghani and the elected Afghan government had to swallow was far worse and demeaning. They had no say whatsoever as the US, which had put in place the democratic system that had brought the Afghan politicians to power in the first place, negotiated their downfall in Doha with the Taliban, the common sworn enemy that the US had vowed to destroy. As per the agreement reached with the US, the Taliban was under no compulsion whatsoever to take the mandated intra-Afghan talks to a conclusion. The Taliban had a free rein to do what it wished, as long as that stopped short of targeting coalition troops. This US deal with the Taliban sealed the Afghan government’s fate much more definitively than any other factor had. Further, it was the US-led coalition that had trained and guided the Afghan troops that subsequently melted away when the Taliban approached. The impression local reports give is that the training that the US imparted to these Afghan troops was relevant more for counter-terrorist operations than for wider territorial holding operations. In any case, the fact of the matter remains that the US did not seek the concurrence of the Afghan government or the army before taking the decision to leave Afghanistan. Even if only out of respect for trillions of dollars of its taxpayer’s money, the least the US could have done was to ask the Afghan government and army whether they were prepared for a US departure and confident of holding on to the country on their own.

The biggest loss to the US and its Western allies in their hasty and botched departure from Afghanistan has been of prestige and standing in the international pecking order, something that China is sure to capitalize upon. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace articulated this succinctly when he told BBC TV yesterday that “What I'm uncomfortable with is that we have a world order now, where resolve is perceived by our adversaries as weak, the West's resolve. That is something we should all worry about: if the West is seen not to have resolve and it fractures, then our adversaries like Russia find that encouraging”. Wallace also said that Britain fears that the Taliban’s return and the vacuum left by the West’s chaotic withdrawal will allow terrorists from Al Qaeda to re-gain a foothold in Afghanistan. “Around the world, Islamists will see what they will view as a victory and that will inspire other terrorists”, he said.

There is little doubt that the confidence of countries that have committed themselves to democracy and rule of law will be shaken and eroded by the recent happenings in Afghanistan. As Republican Representative Liz Cheney said in an ABC interview, “It is going to have ramifications not just for Afghanistan. America’s adversaries know they can threaten us, and our allies are questioning this morning whether they can count on us for anything”. US strategist Walter Russell Mead also put it eloquently when he tweeted, “Sentence you won’t be hearing anyone saying this morning: ‘Trust the Americans. They know what they’re doing’”. On the other hand, the steadily increasing number of countries that pretend to be democracies but are persistently and incrementally veering towards authoritarianism will only be emboldened by the US’ repeatedly demonstrated inability to protect and preserve the systems and principles that it holds so dear to its way of life, whether that be in Myanmar or in Belarus. Afghanistan has deeply undermined both America’s international image and the relationship between Washington and its allies, and this will impact the worldview and the alignment of many nations in the years to come.

Amidst the raging but superfluous debate and speculation over whether the new Taliban dispensation will be more moderate than the last murderous one that ruled Afghanistan on the basis of brute and crude force between 1996 and 2001, the role that Pakistan played in shaping both the radical ideas of the Taliban in religious seminaries in north-western Pakistan and the fate of the terrorist group through steadfast support to its violent ways, is being swept under the carpet. Simply put, without Pakistan there would be no Taliban. Without the Pakistani intelligence agencies driving the movement, tens of thousands of deeply radicalized, highly trained and heavily armed Taliban fighters would not have descended upon Afghanistan from Pakistan once the US departure was announced. Without Pakistan, Kabul would not have already fallen to the Taliban. A lot of the ire and indignation at the Taliban and its barbaric ways, therefore, should in reality first be directed towards Pakistan.

US officials, when confronted with the menace that Pakistan had become for their country, often sheltered behind the plausible explanation that they needed Pakistan’s assistance as long as US troops remained in Afghanistan. Pakistan remained important even for an orderly and secure exit of US troops from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorists of all varieties was to an extent tolerated for the sake of the more immediate US interests and needs in Afghanistan. The US knew all along that Pakistan was playing a double game in which the joke was squarely on the US. If it had any doubt on that score, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement on 16 August, a day after the Taliban had taken over Kabul, would have cleared any residual fog. At a time when a worried United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was urging the Taliban “to exercise utmost restraint in order to protect lives and ensure that humanitarian needs can be addressed”, Imran Khan was saying that the Taliban, by wresting control over Afghanistan militarily, was “breaking the chains of slavery”. His reference clearly was to the presence of US and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Now that its Afghan conundrum will soon largely be behind it, the US, unless it is willing to lose more face going forward, would do well to clearly communicate to Pakistan that its days of duplicitously promoting terror while simultaneously claiming falsely to fight it must now be a thing of the past, and that payback time for unleashing the Haqqani network on US troops in Afghanistan and other similar serious transgressions would now begin in earnest.