The situation in Afghanistan is like the ending of Charlie’s Wilson war. In the endgame there is no saving face and no victory is won. In fact a great vacuum remains, despite 20 years of US and NATO partner attempts to nation-building.
It is not as if they did not know how it would end, sooner or later, as with Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. The final withdrawal of American forces was always coming, regardless of what had achieved or not achieved, which they didn’t care enough about either way, not being in their own backyard.
But how final is final, and what faith (if any) does anyone have in the Government of Afghanistan and its ability to find some compromise with the Taliban? When Turkey is being presented as a Beacon of Democracy and the last line of defence, by being asked to provide security and management for the Afghan International Airport, you can see this as a “wash-your-hands job” on the scale of Pontius Pilate.
Turkish forces have already been protecting Kabul airport for the six years, as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. But Turkey is the least liked of all NATO members, and therefroe the one we are always told is untrustworthy.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country, its highways increasingly dangerous due to Taliban (banned in Russia) and other militant activity, making the country’s airports critical assets. Tasking Turkey with their defence is a calculated insult, as if Afghanistan is perceived to be so far down the scale of credibility that even Turkey, a pariah in all but name, is considered a model it should aspire to.
It is becoming clear that Turkey is being left there as the last diplomatic bridge in the region, although not for the benefit of other NATO members. Those who created this situation are envisaging two main scenarios:
1. The situation goes haywire, and Turkey needs a NATO bailout, damaging Turkey and improving the lot of those who complain about it.
2. Turkey manages to interface with local militants better, gains leverage over the region after decades of Western blood and treasure spent, and can then be presented as equally barbarian, a country which can be left to the dustbowls nobody wants because they are its element.
Domino Theory Alive and Well
It is very unlikely that Turkey agreed to be the latest sacrificial lamb in Afghanistan. It knows its history, as does every other country which has been there.
One reason for the US pullout is so it can rejoice in having forced Turkey to become the fall guy, and thus regained some of the soft power influence its policies have steadily eroded over the past thirty years. It may believe it has turned a corner, and not to associate itself with more glamorous projects where it has more chances of winning, and of being the best of the good guys once again.
The irony is that Afghanistan is perhaps the only recent US intervention which hasn’t harmed its reputation amongst the local population. The US forces are not seen as invaders and destroyers in the same way they are in Iraq, and most other places in the news you care to name.
But they can never win, and only went in because they thought things were so bad that the rules had changed. They weren’t, the truth is still the truth, and Afghanistan will always be beyond control by others or by any one part of itself, because that’s the way it is.
When the British were at the height of their imperial power they fought three wars against Afghanistan, none of which ultimately achieved their goals. The First British-Afghan War resulted in the greatest ever British military defeat.
Though every Afghan knows the story of Dr. Brydon riding into Jalalabad in 1834 to surrender, empowered to do this simply by being the last British soldier left alive, this incident is barely mentioned in British history books. One of the reasons for this is because the Commander-in-Chief of the army at the time was none other than the Duke of Wellington, the epitome of the British military hero. Just as Poles can’t admit Paderewski persecuted Jews, Brits can’t admit their embodiment of military genius did this on his watch.
When the Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979, scared of having another Tito or Dubcek on their doorstep, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced publicly that it was the stupidest thing the USSR had ever done, because the only outcome would be certain defeat. At this time Macmillan was seen as a ghostly relic with no relevance to the modern world, and the USSR as a practically unstoppable force so tightly controlled it would never fall. Afghanistan proved him right, and is still there, unlike the Soviet Union, thus proving Afghanistan’s history is destiny, not a succession of flukes.
The US and NATO went in to remove the Taliban because they thought that either this crumbling terror cult was Afghanistan, meaning history could now be rewritten, or the opposition were Afghanistan, and just needed a bit of protection. Each successive US Administration has seen history bite it on the butt, because only Afghans can solve their own problems. They may not want the Taliban, but at least they are their problem, and therefore part of their solution.
The US is cutting and running and leaving the rottenest apple to provide a semblance of partnership with the locals. It is the equivalent of asking Iran to guarantee the borders of Lebanon. When Turkey goes the same way as all the rest, NATO may hope to pick up the pieces and put them together in a way which reduces Turkey’s importance, but Afghan conflicts have longer reach than the immediate irritant, which is why “final withdrawal” is not likely to actually be that.
Dark Clouds on the Horizon
Already Afghanistan’s neighbours are seeing the handwriting on the wall. As the headline reads, Russia drills attack helicopters, pledges help to secure Tajik-Afghan border, and that is just for starters.
The pullout in Afghanistan will make things more complicated for Russia in the border countries in Central Asia, another virtue of it from a US point of view. Turkey will likely add some fuel to the fire, as it has been supporting al-Qaeda and ISIS (terrorist organizations, both banned in Russia) for years, and the worse things get in Afghanistan, the more it will have to resort to destabilising other countries through extra-state actors to maintain its reach in the region.
It is not that there is anything left to fight over. The Taliban knows it has won, and the US and NATO know they have lost. The US has longed tried to cover for this by encouraging negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, to create some form of coalition. But as they entered to get rid of Taliban, why are they still there?
Pashtun Afghans, who long held hegemony in the country, have saying: “Getting Afghans together is like trying to put frogs on a scale”. Afghan exile communities reflect the country’s deep ethnic, linguistic, religious, political and cultural differences wherever they go. But they are all Afghans first, not displaced populations with a natural homeland elsewhere, and their disputes are about who should hold what levers, not which foreign influence they prefer.
Nothing stands in the way of the Taliban, which first took power in 1996 without having to fight a major battle, as its ideology, though widely disliked, is at least local and understood. It was just a waiting game from the onset, and not much time is left.
The recent meetings of US and Turkish defence ministers to discuss the security of Kabul’s airport are purely designed to make that an enclave for continued foreign, and NATO influence via a third party. Controlling who and what goes in and out is sanctions under another name, but are likely to be as effective as the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which was the “robust response” to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back then.
Your Problem, So No Solution
The vast majority of US forces have already left, and partners such as Germany and the UK have also pulled out their units. The Afghan army is quickly losing ground throughout the country to the Taliban, and Afghan troops have been fleeing the militants, with some even escaping to Tajikistan.
The authorities vow they’ll retake all lost territory. But with what? The only way to do that is to bring the Taliban into the government, the very thing they have failed to do, for good or ill, so far.
US Public Broadcasting is trying to make out there is a last-ditch effort to support the government. By making it last-ditch, it gives the US another way out – the Afghans have let the US down through their incompetence, not the other way round, so the US has to leave a false friend rather than abandon a true one.
The government is arming militias to help in the fight in the hope this will make up the difference. If the Afghan Security forces, with all their equipment, supplies and funding from the United States, cannot hold the line what makes anyone think that local volunteers from vying ethnic and tribal groups can make any difference?
The answer is simple – the more divided and chaotic Afghanistan is, the more problems there are for the region. The US knows that history too, about how everyone could be supported or ignored depending on what position they were taking with this or that Afghan group during the civil war. The way to win this long term is to bring in the right people through indirect sponsorship, provided you get out again just as quickly.
Hardware With a Microchip
Joe Biden is finally saying what we should have known from the onset: the future of Afghanistan must be left to the Afghans to decide. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build,” Biden said in a recent speech. “Afghan leaders have to come together and drive forward a future.”
He stressed, according to the BBC, that it was up to Afghans to decide “what they want”, but then added: “The senseless violence, it has to stop. It’s going to be very difficult.” This is an admission that senseless violence is not what Afghans want, so he should be there stopping it. But violence is only senseless if the US doesn’t think it can win by using it: otherwise it is a justified freedom fight, like so many others where the same violence has been used regardless of what the people want.
One thing is certain – troops there or not, money will still flow. Biden is quoted in the Russian media as saying that despite the troop withdrawal the US will “not walk away”, which implies that Washington will continue to fund the Afghan military, as it has done for years, even if that ultimately means the money goes to the Taliban.
It would be nice to believe that the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is the right one, and it is not yet another “strategic handover” of military hardware which will be used by terrorists and others for agendas that we don’t yet know. It is like when the US-backed Iraqi forces withdrew in the wake of ISIS offensive and massive amounts of military equipment and ammunition fell into the hands of terrorists, and as if not by accident.
There is always that possibility – that the US is trying to retain some control by controlling weapons supply – “Do as we want or there will be more irregulars around with our guns”. But it is more likely that the Biden Administration is just cutting and running because it has no other option, and dropping Turkey into the mess as a last pyrrhic victory.
As the Brookings Institute so clearly points out, “all of these likely losses to democratic processes, rights, and humanitarian concerns (caused by the withdrawal) are immensely tragic.” But the United States can no longer reverse them. It has outlived its purported mission, and now realise it can no longer cater to a coalition of a corrupt government, defence contractors, NGOs and development agencies whose aims were more targeted to profits and staying on the job as long as possible, to make Afghanistan all the more a basket case and the people all the more dependent than independent.
No end of the beginning
The US government is well aware of what may happen next, in terms of withdrawal scenarios, and time will tell which one was the most accurate. In hindsight, if researchers knew as well as the US says they did what would happen, why did it stay so long?
With the lack of US air support, the Taliban will soon be in a position to take several provincial capitals, and the Afghan Armed Forces are already caving in, with many switching sides. Kabul may fall without a shot being fired.
The airport will hold out to the last, as it will provide the last opportunity for those with close financial ties there, and some of those that have been so supportive of the foreign intervention, to get out of Dodge before Sunset in the wake of a failed US and NATO intervention.
The Taliban has defeated NATO, and in the final analysis, the latest of many foreign interventions in Afghanistan has come to an ignominious end. Hopefully the same will not be repeated in another region, at least anytime soon, but if it is, at least Turkey will be sent to stabilise the situation!
I think that it is necessary to remember about China, since stability in Central Asia is important for them for their continued economic development, in terms of its Belt and Road Projects, etc. Beijing has already developed various channels with the leaders of Taliban in Pakistan. It is to be expected that the US can now after departure from Afghanistan devote more attention and “free up” its resources in a bid to contain China.
The withdrawal of USA troops from Afghanistan is likely the preferred method for the US to try to contain the rise of China and its “newfound friends” in the region.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.