At long last, Bagram Airfield lies abandoned, but the war in Afghanistan isn’t over. Rather, it is entering a new phase. From now on, forces loyal to the central government will battle the Taliban without large numbers of foreign fighters armed with NATO’s best weapons. Having failed to defeat the Taliban with thousands of foreign troops and tens of thousands of airstrikes, it is hard to see the central government doing more with less. They are in deep trouble.
Indeed, it will be rather surprising if the Afghan president can still be found in Kabul this time next year, and with many weeks to go before winter sets in, the central government might not even last that long. This week we saw the Taliban hoist their flag on their border with Iran, and many districts were yielded without a fight. Although the Taliban’s claim that they control 85% of the country is undoubtedly too generous, it is not unfair to say that they are contesting that same percentage.
To be clear, the continuation of the war (and gains by the Taliban) will be a disaster for women’s rights, child health, the work of doctors, journalists and anyone else who doesn’t appreciate the Islamist lash. For America and its allies, however, leaving Afghanistan will be one of the few bright spots in a time of serious challenges. The truth is, the USA and the West were distracted and disempowered by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and withdrawal from these places offers an opportunity to refocus on geopolitical events of greater importance.
By fighting a counter-insurgency in a distant land, Coalition forces have made enormous investments in a style of warfare that will not keep the democratic world safe. Worse, the casualties sustained, the collateral damage caused, and the humiliations endured have badly weakened the image of Western militaries and their moral foundations. Instead of being seen as freedom fighters, NATO members are seen as imperialists. Instead of being seen as saviours of a people abused by Islamism, NATO is seen as anti-Muslim. Instead of investing in deterrence measures aimed at Chinese or Russian expansionism, NATO has invested in peacekeeping for a non-existent peace. It should never have gone on as long as it did, so an end now is better than an end later.
Predictably, just as the USA was criticised for staying, so too is it criticised for leaving. One analyst even managed to describe the withdrawal as “hasty”, even though American forces have been there longer than most Afghans have been alive. The sense that America should continue the war was upheld by a powerful myth. This myth is encapsulated in the following statement by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR).
“The United States has a vital interest in preserving the many political, economic, and security gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. A resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could once again turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven. Moreover, internal instability in Afghanistan could have larger regional ramifications as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia all compete for influence in Kabul and with subnational actors.”
Almost every part of the statement is untrue or misleading, despite CFR being one of the USA’s most influential foreign policy groups. First, America had no vital interests in Afghanistan. Proof of this is in the continuation of American life as the withdrawal takes place. The man on the street in Chicago won’t notice if there is an American on the streets of Kabul. The USA will go on, just as it did after Vietnam, and it will be stronger for every dollar and every soldier not given to Afghanistan.
Second, there is no obvious connection between, say, airline security and victory in Afghanistan. There is no connection between driving trucks into French crowds and Taliban control of Kabul. There is no connection between combating Islamism in the boroughs of Britain and securing an Afghan province. Besides, terrorist safe havens exist throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. It is as if the Council of Foreign Relations is unaware that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan or that Saudi Arabia produced the 9/11 terrorists (and many others). Of all the ways to undermine transnational terrorism or terrorism in the West, fighting in Afghanistan features a very long way down a very long list.
The final line of the CFR statement is the most baffling, implying as it does that Pakistan, Russia, India, and Iran aren’t already competing for influence amongst the Afghan tribes. Better yet, it implies that it matters to the world whether this clan or that receives patronage from this or that repressive regime. Am I seriously expected to believe that NATO troops should bleed so as to prevent Pakistani and Iranian meddling as if they are not meddling already? Am I expected to believe that American bombers upholding a corrupt government would be superior to other countries’ bombers doing so?
From now on, we can expect a bloody reshuffling of the political order in Afghanistan, with the neighbouring countries cutting whatever deals are necessary to secure stable borders. A series of secure enclaves held by tribal militias may be sought after by neighbouring states, and if they succeed, it will be a marginally better outcome than anarchy or total Taliban rule. Nonetheless, whatever the role of outsiders, it will be tough to bring genuine peace to the entire country.
The Taliban are unlikely to stop fighting any time soon. They have defeated NATO. They are overthrowing the central government. They have a powerful moral conviction on their side, rightly or wrongly. If a tribal confederation (particularly in the north) or the current government manages to stabilise some provinces, the Taliban can be expected to keep attacking for years to come with or without foreign aid.
That said, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban can actually govern the entire country, mainly since they never controlled it in the past. It is far easier to destroy a flimsy edifice than to build a new and solid structure, and there are already multiple Islamist insurgent groups competing in Afghanistan, including ISIS. The Taliban will need to prevent its forces from being shattered by the centrifugal forces of local tribalism and religious disputation. Why should they find this more accessible than any previous government?
So it is that NATO is gone, and in its place remains nothing but a terrible wrestling ring for tribes and states uninterested in liberalism. Humanity will be the loser, as is often the case, but we must hope that the loss of this war means the husbanding of strength and the renewal of purpose in American foreign policy. That so many people will not actually understand the importance of America’s renewal is a sign of just how forgiving the strategic environment has been since the end of the Cold War.
It will not last.