What next for the United States, the Taliban and Afghanistan? | Asia
Although the war and occupation are over and the dust has finally receded in Afghanistan, there is little clarity about what the future holds for the Afghan nation or for the two main protagonists, the United States and the Taliban.
Based on their initial official statements, both sides appear to be limiting their ambitions, lowering their expectations and adjusting their positions after the 20-year war after another 20-year conflict has left Afghanistan in a catastrophic stalemate.
Despite America’s humiliating defeat, over the past week, President Joe Biden has insisted that withdrawing US and NATO forces was the right decision, putting an end to Washington’s longest war.
He argues that Americans should not fight wars and die on behalf of those who lack the will to do so themselves – no less on behalf of a clearly corrupt US-backed government in Kabul.
I suppose, it’s better late than never. Or, as Winston Churchill observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing only after they’ve tried everything else.”
Well, not always.
But now that the curtains are closed on the scene of American-Afghan death, what lessons has Washington learned from two decades of war and occupation?
In a scathing report published earlier this month, the Pentagon’s Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction showed how and why the United States has gone wrong on everything in Afghanistan, from strategy, planning and timelines to spending and oversight.
However, almost all the lessons suggested in the report are practical, and mainly useful to better prepare for the next task; Or the next war. If America does not learn the lessons of Vietnam, it should learn the lessons of Afghanistan before embarking on another foreign adventure.
But this misses the most important lesson of all, which is to avoid “wars of choice” entirely and at all costs.
Fortunately, Americans are fed up with Washington’s wars and nearly 70 percent of those polled are in full support of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Indeed, it is hoped that the humiliating scenes in Kabul last week will deepen public resentment of future global adventures.
Likewise, it seems that much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment is finally beginning to grasp the notion that these exhausting and costly wars in the greater Middle East are not only costly—$6.4 trillion and growing—but also weaken the standing of the United States in the world, in particular. In the face of its strategic competitors, China and Russia.
Tragic though it may be, the US-made Afghan disaster has become the subject of jokes around the world. As one online statement says, “If you feel useless, just remember that it took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.”
That’s why the United States may want to avoid foreign entanglements at least for the foreseeable future, and instead try to regain some of its lost credibility by acting less recklessly when faced with similar security challenges.
But then again, old habits don’t die easily.
As Washington tries to stay away from major troop deployments and nation-building missions, it is doubling down on the infamous “global war on terror” by bombing drones, covert operations, etc. in the greater Middle East and beyond.
In other words, the Biden administration may have given up on the counterinsurgency front, but not given up on counterterrorism operations.
On the contrary.
In Afghanistan, it reserves the right to act proactively, as it pleases, against any emerging threats, real or perceived. Indeed, US officials have defended their withdrawal from Afghanistan on the grounds that they do not need to be on the ground in order to act when needed, just as they do in other parts of the region.
But to avoid unnecessary escalation, Washington will attempt to influence Taliban behavior in a way that limits or prevents the emergence of future threats to US interests by working closely with Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran, and other regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Despite frequent disasters, the United States remains the richest and most powerful country in the world with enormous influence at its disposal. To that end, President Biden is already holding a virtual meeting of G7 leaders next week to discuss a common strategy on Afghanistan.
But how receptive is the Taliban to US/Western pressures and how will they govern Afghanistan?
The Taliban’s initial statements and behavior indicate a measure of pragmatism, a willingness to compromise and a realization that the country, especially the capital, whose population has doubled to five million, has changed somewhat since 2001.
Taliban leaders may have achieved a decisive victory, but they do not want to be isolated again as they did when they first ruled in the late 1990s.
That is why they have already opened a dialogue with Beijing, despite its mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims, in order to win its recognition and help. China is doing massive infrastructure work in Pakistan, Iran and other Asian countries, as part of the strategic Belt and Road Initiative, replacing the United States as the leading power in Asia.
However, based on their recent statements and their coordination with US evacuation forces in Kabul this week, Taliban leaders want to continue dialogue with the United States, seek de facto recognition and possibly help from Western countries and institutions, and they know this too. Well, the country cannot be stabilized without outside help.
To this end, the Taliban issued amnesty to all civil servants and appealed to the soldiers of the old regime to join its armed forces. Moreover, its leaders are talking about forming coalition governments and allowing girls to go to school and women to stay in their jobs as long as they are veiled.
It remains to be seen whether this indicates a real change of heart or just a tactic to break out of isolation, although most remain skeptical that the conservative Islamist movement will accept Western dictates after its hard-earned victory. You have certainly made it clear that democracy is neither Sharia nor Afghan traditions.
If the Taliban fail to transform into a functioning government and instead rule like a retaliatory armed uprising, expect the likes of Iran and Pakistan to intervene directly or through disaffected tribal and ethnic groups.
All of this will have important repercussions for other Islamic groups inspired by the Taliban’s victory, creating a new vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks.
In short, the war may be over, but the reckoning may soon begin in Afghanistan.
Likewise, the curtains may have fallen on the US occupation of Afghanistan after 9/11, but they are far from closed in the post-9/11 era.
And America, which declared itself the “indispensable nation”, proved once again, at a high cost to itself and to the world, that it was completely dispensable.
Twenty years after they invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq with the ambition to transform the entire region to their liking, one has to wonder who changed who.