03.09.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

What does the Future Hold for the US after the Afghan Debacle?


The chaos we have seen in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and the American rush to evacuate its diplomatic staff and other personnel signifies the US failure at multiple levels. On the one hand, the Taliban takeover within days of the US withdrawal was/is an intelligence failure. In May, a US intelligence report had predicted that it will take the Taliban at least six months to capture Kabul. In July, Biden was up-beat that the Afghanistan will not be America’s another “Saigon moment.” “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan”, stressed Biden last month. According to one former US military official, the Taliban takeover is “an intelligence failure of the highest order”, one that will have major repercussions for the US in the future, especially at a time when Washington is doing its best to redefine its ties across Southeast Asia as a security and military bulwark to counter China. In Europe, it could push European states – in particular, Germany and France – to think more deeply about developing a security infrastructure and a foreign policy completely independent of the US.

The Afghanistan debacle is, therefore, going to leave a major impact on the future of the US standing in the world. Regardless of whether the US officials acknowledge this or not, the magnanimity of the failure is enormous. Washington’s refusal to acknowledge failure notwithstanding, the August 2021 report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has shown how and why the US failed in Afghanistan on all fronts, including strategy, planning, execution and oversight. The report draws major conclusions that speak volumes about the US (in)ability to lead. Some of the conclusions that the report draws include:

  1. The US failed to develop an overall coherent (military, political and economic) strategy to achieve its objectives.
  2. The US governments consistently “underestimated” the timeline to required to rebuild Afghanistan, consistently making “reckless compromises”, which directly led to the erosion of conditions to allow for a “victorious withdrawal.”
  3.  Many of the US institutions and infrastructure projects were “unsustainable.”
  4. The US inability to control security i.e., defeat the Taliban militarily, check the rise of the ISIS “severely undermined reconstruction efforts.” The US failure to build democracy in Afghanistan was a direct outcome of the inability of the US officials to make sufficient gains to convince frightened rural Afghans of the benefits of supporting their government.
  5. The US governments completely failed to “understand the Afghan context” and failed to “tailor” its efforts accordingly.
  6. The US agencies did not conduct sufficient monitoring and evaluation of their efforts.
  7. The US failed to develop, not learning anything from Vietnam, an effective and realistic post-conflict stabilisation model, with the utter US failure proving that it does not have such a model.

The failure happened despite the fact that, as Biden recently boasted off,

“America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history,”

In light of this assessment by SIGAR, it is not difficult for anyone, including the US allies in Europe and Southeast Asia, to infer that the US failure in Afghanistan is multi-dimensional, consequently rendering it as an ally that is neither reliable due to the highly unstable trajectory of its policies, nor dependable due to its utter inability to lead countries out of crisis, or help them fight the disruptive forces (whoever those might be). As it stands, the US spent trillion of dollars, lost thousands of lives and took 20 years to replace the Taliban in Afghanistan with the same Taliban.

Therefore, even though the US is now pro-actively pursuing the Southeast Asian countries to develop a ring of allies to counter China to “win the 21st Century”, as Biden said in his first ever speech to the US Congress in last April, the US lacks the credibility. Even though the US failed to learn anything from Vietnam – which is one reason why it failed in Afghanistan – it pursuit of aggression in Southeast Asia shows that it is refusing once again to learn anything from Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of adjusting itself to the realities of the contemporary multipolar world, the US is still relentlessly pursuing policies to win the 21st century.

Not only is this pursual unrealistic, but dangerous too; for, it contains seeds of ultimate conflict, which the US allies in Southeast Asia, as also in Europe, may not be willing to fight alongside the US to help it win a war that many of them think is neither necessary, nor even realistically winnable.

For many in Europe, including conservative candidate for the German chancellorship, Armin Laschet, Afghanistan represents “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding”, a crisis that they do not want to face again. With the US increasingly shifting its focus to Southeast Asia, where the ASEAN countries are not too willing to ally with the US against China, Europe/NATO is most likely to be frustrated further by the US for its lack of interest in NATO, an organisation that has successfully displayed its fighting incompetence in Afghanistan. Therefore, the Europeans are not enthusiastic about allying with the US against China.

A January 2021 poll from the European Council on Foreign Relations found 60 percent of Europeans want their nation to remain neutral in any conflict between China and the United States. The poll also found that 59 percent of those surveyed believe that China will be more powerful than the United States in a decade; only 19 percent vouched for continued US supremacy. Finally, 67 percent said that Europe could not always rely on the United States and had to look after its own defense. Each of these trends points to electorates that would back the US in the conflict that US leaders of both parties see as most important for the US.

A re-poll following the debacle in Afghanistan will most likely show an even less support for the US adventures in the world, be it against China in Southeast Asia or against Russia in Europe. The US failure in Afghanistan and its inability to force Germany to drop the Nord Stream-2 show the debacle, a full blown crisis of military and economic supremacy, Washington is facing and will continue to face if it fails to reset the whole trajectory of its geo-politics.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.