With the Afghan Taliban’s (terrorist organization, banned in Russia) successful military occupation of Kabul on August 15, 2021 America’s twenty years’ debacle in Afghanistan has come to an embarrassing end after almost twenty years of what millions of the Americans believed was a ‘war on terror’ to ‘end terror.’ While the Taliban’s ultimate success was never unexpected, the fact that a military force that was financed, trained, advised and led by the US army and NATO for twenty years did not last a few weeks means that some serious questions about the overall capability of the American army are to be asked. While building a strong, capable and well-armed security force was one of the cardinal objectives of the Obama administration’s ‘mission Afghanistan’, its utter collapse in the face of 75,000 strong Taliban force indicates the utter hollowness of the claims that a total of four American administrations (Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden) had been making since 2001 about the resounding ‘American victory.’ The withdrawal and the collapse only indicates an embarrassing disengagement, which has become a peculiar characteristic of the US wars since Vietnam. But claim-making never stops in the US to conceal this embarrassment.
Even as the ‘made by the US’ Afghan Security apparatus was collapsing in Afghanistan and the Taliban victory looked very much insight, Biden was adamant that the Taliban will not be able to overrun Afghanistan because Kabul had a well-funded and American-built security force. On July 8, Biden insisted that the “likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”. Stressing that the Taliban takeover was “not inevitable”, Biden lied once again, saying:
“the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable” ….. “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.”
It took the Taliban only five weeks to prove Biden wrong, and expose the hypocrisy of America’s twenty years of ‘constructive engagement’ in Afghanistan. But the Americans have found a (ridiculous) way of justifying their withdrawal and the humiliation they are facing. For the Biden administration, as Blinken insisted, the ultimate objective of the war in Afghanistan was to eliminate Osama bin Laden and to defeat al-Qaeda (ogranization banned in Russia). While bin Laden was reportedly killed in 2011, it remains that al-Qaeda has not been defeated in Afghanistan.
According to a recent report of the United Nations Security Council,
“The senior leadership of Al-Qaida (QDe.004) remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban ….. Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network (TAe.012), and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy.”
So, what did the Americans achieve in Afghanistan besides killing Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan’s garrison city of Abbottabad? The American war machine did manage to kill hundreds of thousands of people, besides displacing millions, destroying the country and giving false hopes of peace and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan.
Given the debacle, the question that needs to be asked is: can America still claim to be the ‘leader’ of the ‘free world?’ The chaos that followed the American war in Iraq leading to the birth of the ISIS and the millions killed and displaced, as well as the Taliban’s return to power exactly after two decades of the 9/11 casts serious doubts on the presumed feasibility of the American (and Western) model of global politics centred around Washington and Brussels. Indeed, the American/NATO defeat in Afghanistan calls for a shift to a rule-based model of global politics that both Russia and China have been calling for.
For the Biden administration, the defeat and the embarrassment means that it will have a very hard time proving that “America is back” on the world stage after the Trump era collapse to “America First.” Its significance is supreme in the wake of America’s growing competition and global rivalry with Beijing and Moscow. After a clear military defeat in Afghanistan, will the Southeast Asian countries – the ASEAN on the whole – be able to ally with the US militarily to tackle what the Americans have been calling the ‘China threat’?
The Americans sold the al-Qaeda lie to justify its war in Afghanistan, it left Afghanistan without eliminating al-Qaeda fully. If the Americans are today selling the ‘China threat’, it lacks that level of credibility it once had in 2001 when even Russia and China also supported the ‘war on terror.’ On the contrary, the American failure is an opportunity for those states rivalling American interventions to stress that the American power is in clear decline and that Washington’s commitments cannot be trusted.
For instance, when the Joe Biden administration announced withdrawal, it “ensured” Ashraf Ghani that the US will not “abandon” Afghanistan. Yet, all the Biden administration accomplish was/is an institutional abandonment of a system it had itself directly created after dismantling the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirates” in 2001-02.
Should the world still look towards the US for global leadership as the primary security ally? A moment of hard, deep and long reflection has arrived for countries that have been and still hoping to appropriate American assistance to sustain themselves against threats that the same Americans have been selling them.
The Biden administration’s claims that Afghanistan’s utter collapse is not a “defeat” will not change Afghanistan’s ground realities, nor will it make America more “credible and dependable”.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.