Afghanistan: A Briefing
“Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland”.
President Joe Biden, August 16th, 2021
The reference by President Biden to US interests sounded more like a High Victorian imperialist than a Democratic president. The abject Western retreat from Afghanistan will be catastrophic for many of its people. The decision by both Presidents Trump and Biden to set fixed dates for withdrawal whilst seeking to exert little or no leverage over the Taliban to establish a transitional government afforded the latter a planning holiday to prepare for their successful offensive. President Biden has decided that on balance a Taliban-led Afghanistan will no longer pose a sufficient threat to the US and its allies to justify a continued American presence and that there is little point in propping up a corrupt Afghan government. The failure to withdraw civilians before US forces and to properly consult Allies will damage NATO and remind Europeans it is high-time they came of age as security actors. The wider consequences for the US and the West are as yet unclear but after failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by ceding the ground to others in Libya and Syria, the fall of Kabul marks the definitive end of Western liberal interventionism. It could also mark the end of Western efforts to establish an institutionalised world order. A version of the Great Game between Russia, China, India and Iran is already beginning in Afghanistan and it could well also mark the return of global Realpolitik in which Great Power Competition and a resurgence of systemic global reach terrorism seems. Unfornately, the West no longer knows what it wants or how to achieve it and others will draw their own conclusions from this disaster about the reliability of the US as a friend and partner, and the utility of Europeans as either.
Smoke and errors
It is not quite the First Afghan War redux, but the victory of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not far short of it. On 1 January 1842, following an ‘agreement’ between Major-General William Elphinstone, commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and Pashtun warriors, the British began what they thought would be safe passage from Kabul to British India for 4,500 military personnel and 12,000 mainly Afghan and Indian ‘camp followers’. As soon as the retreat began the civilians and their military escort came under attack from Ghilji warriors. On the second day, the Royal Afghan Army’s 6th Regiment, in which the British had invested much effort, deserted. Only one British officer and seven Indian soldiers survived the ensuing massacre. To date, 2,448 US military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002, along with over 1,200 other Coalition personnel and more than 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police. At least 47,000 Afghan civilians have also been killed with almost 400,000 Afghans displaced since May 2021 alone. It is also believed that over 50,000 Taliban fighters have died in the conflict. The cost alone of training and equipping the collapsed Afghan National Army has been some $88bn/€75bn/£64bn whilst President Biden says the US has spent over $1.5 trillion. By any standards what has happened in Afghanistan over the past few days is a monumental failure for the US and its Western Allies. The US has been humiliated, Europeans revealed for the security lightweights they are, and on the hills around Kabul the last dying embers of Western liberal interventionism extinguished. Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Afghanistan are now all testaments to twenty-first century Western strategic incompetence. However, anger is not analysis and in this piece I will offer some initial considerations of causes, consequences and effects.
The main finding is that for such a deadly rupture to have taken place there has clearly been a catastrophic failure of high political leadership, not just now and not just in Washington. How the US and its Allies mismanaged the withdrawal is the immediate cause of what by any standards of policy is a disaster. The consequences for the Afghan people will be tragic, particularly women and children, and there will also be profound consequences for US leadership. After what has happened not even America’s closest allies will any longer be sure Washington has the political capacity or strategic patience to stay the course of any prolonged campaign. The arbitrary manner in which the Trump administration decided to leave Afghanistan, which was confirmed by President Biden, has gifted the Taliban a victory. A decision that appears to have had far more to do with America’s toxic domestic politics than considered US or Western security strategy, as evidenced by the unedifying blame game between presidents Trump and Biden.
Why is the withdrawal a defeat?
One of the many strange aspects of President Biden’s August 16th speech was the suggestion that he was somehow bound by the agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. This is not least because whilst the Americans and their Allies honoured the agreement, the Taliban has not. Under the February 2020 Doha deal between US forces were to have been withdrawn by May 1st, 2021. In return, the Taliban would break links with Al Qaeda and enter peace negotiations with the Ghani government. They did neither. The date for completion of the withdrawal also slipped back to August 31st which established a clear link between the withdrawal and the twentieth anniversary of 911. Given that information warfare/propaganda is a large part of what the Taliban do it clearly spurred them on to retake Kabul by 911 and thus helped accelerate the collapse of demoralised Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) about to be stripped of their foreign advisors in the face of an implacable enemy. Consequently, Washington has not only handed the Taliban an unconditional victory, but afforded violent Salafist jihadis the world-over an immense propaganda coup and a powerful recruiting tool. Jihadist groups will also interpret the defeat of the West as fulfilment of prophesy that a Muslim army would defeat infidels in the so-called Khorasan, which includes parts of Afghanistan.
Were the US and its Allies right to withdraw from Afghanistan? President Biden said, “Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan. Al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, al Nusra in Syria, ISIS are attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia. These threats warrant our attention and our resource”. And that, “There was only the cold reality of withdrawing our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back”. Twenty years on from the December 2001 invasion Western powers were certainly right to be looking to Afghans to decide their future and in a terrifying way they have, or at least had it decided for them. It is also argued by some that the rise of China and the return of Great Power Competition means it is simply no longer possible for the US and its Allies and partners to commit such large parts of their respective forces and resources to one central Asian country. In fact this argument is simplistic. It is true the Taliban reduced its attacks on the Coalition in the wake of the February 2020 deal with Trump and had the US reversed that decision such attacks would likely have resumed. However, the US and its allies have a far better understanding of Afghanistan than twenty years ago. This enabled a strategy of inserting a Western back-bone into the ANSF. It is that backbone which was removed with catastrophic consequences. Moreover, over the past few years the US and its NATO Allies have also succeeded in limiting the number of Western forces engaged. In other words, the US and its Allies should have been able to both prepare for the challenges posed by the likes of China and Russia,whilst maintaining the mission in Afghanistan.
Was the aim of the campaign simply to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan? President Biden stated, “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy”. That mission was precisely what the US signed up to in December 2002 in the Bonn Agreement which was the price many Europeans demanded for committing to a long-term campaign in Afghanistan. Back in December 2001 the West could have mounted a simple search and destroy counter-terrorism mission. However, the West (Americans included) chose not to and decided instead to build a functioning Afghanistan that would no longer be a threat to itself or others. That was also the promise made to the Afghan people and at the time those that made that promise believed it and it is that promise that has now been betrayed, and witnessed the world over. The hard truth is that the West failed in its mission to create such an Afghanistan because it was never really serious in meeting the challenge of it. For the last decade presidents Obama, Trump and now Biden all signalled that they were far more concerned about how to get out of Afghanistan and thus limit any adverse impact this entangling engagement might have on their electoral chances. Europeans? Most of them have been trying to get out since 2002, or at the very best limit their exposure.
Could a functioning and relatively stable Afghan government have ever been established? Probably not, although not simply because of the nature of Afghan politics and the endemic corruption in both Kabul and provincial capitals. Stability in Afghanistan rested on efforts by the Coalition to build governing institutions sufficiently respected and capable of governing the country for the good of all Afghans. Those efforts were frustrated by corruption at the highest levels of government including, it is alleged, ex-President Ashraf Ghani. The main argument the Biden administration is using to justify the withdrawal is that not only are Americans tired of ‘forever wars’ or that Afghanistan not the threat it was (at least for the moment), but that forging competent governance in Afghanistan is simply not possible. However, throughout the campaign commanders also grappled with a deadly paradox: many leaders in Washington did not believe in nation-building, whilst many leaders in Europe who insisted on nation-building signally failed to invest in it. Consequently, the counter-terrorism campaign and the stabilisation campaigns ran in parallel and too often came into conflict in spite of efforts by commanders in the field to de-conflict the two missions. Moreover, in spite of the huge efforts the Americans and their allies and partners made to construct functioning institutions in Kabul they failed to extend the writ of the Kabul government across the country because many Hazara, Pashtun, Tadjik and Uzbek Afghanis alike saw it as corrupt and incompetent. The Allied effort was also often too fractured and uneven spread as it was across a host of so-called ‘provincial reconstruction teams’ all of which were different depending on which country was responsible.
Why did the ANSF fail so spectacularly? In his July 8th speech President Biden said, “The Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped (personnel) – as well equipped as any army in the world – and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban…The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan”. From the outset the entire campaign was predicated on the belief that in time credible Afghan National Security Forces could be fashioned from the many militias that roamed the country and that a shared Afghan identity would emerge sufficiently robust to provide effective pan-Afghanistan security. It was the plan of the late Donald Rumsfeld and it was that plan which failed so catastrophically this past week. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s August 17th claim that the collapse of the Afghan Government was due to the failure of the Afghan National Army (ANA) is thus correct in a very narrow sense. However, the reasons the ANA collapsed are manifold and far more complex than is being presented, and was not simply due to poor leadership or low morale. Whilst the ANA had some 30,000 excellent Special Forces much of the rest of the ANA was an immature force with its Kandaks (battalions) organised around and dependent upon US command and strategic enablers, most notably air power, technology, planning and logistics. On July 4th, much of that US core was withdrawn over twenty four hours. Moreover, contrary to what President Biden said in July the real strength of the Afghan National Army was nothing like 300,000. A part of the force was made up of so-called ‘ghost soldiers’ who simply did not exist but the pay of whom was claimed by the commanders. Much of the rest of the force was poorly-fed, even more poorly-led with much of their fuel and ammunition sold off on the black market before it ever reached them. Given that combination of factors it is hardly surprising much of the ANA melted away as the Taliban marched across Afghanistan’s four hundred districts. Only the 201st Corps and the 111th Capital Division stood their ground and they were destroyed. Crucially, over 40% of the ANA was also meant to be comprised of the Pashtun who also form the core of the Taliban. The ‘ANA’ was only ever going to be credible as a force if the US and its Allies were there to support them for the foreseeable future. What must now be of particular concern is the fate of the weapons and systems in the ANA’s arsenals.
Will Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorism?
President Biden said, “We conduct effective counter-terrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have permanent military presence. If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan”. It is certainly the case that both technology and understanding of a shifting threat have changed profoundly since 2001, but Afghanistan remains substantially the same. The heady ideological mix of Deobandi fundamentalism and the Pashtunwali code of honour suggests it could well do so whatever blandishments the Taliban leadership is uttering. What will be of particular concern to intelligence officials is that the picture they have built up of Afghanistan over many years will steadily degrade. Moreover, the Taliban are unlikely to be able to exercise control over all of the country’s territory particularly given that the next phase of the conflict will likely see warlords, the Northern Alliance and other tribal leaders seeking to reassert their authority over their respective areas.
Will the Great Game return to Afghanistan? The reason British troops entered Afghanistan in the 1840s and effectively stayed for over a century was to block Russian ambitions to seize a warm water port in what was then the British Raj. Afghanistan thus became the unwilling venue for what became known as the Great Game, a grand strategic contest between London and Moscow. It is interesting the speed at which both Beijing and Moscow have moved to establish relations with the new Taliban regime, even if they have yet to formally recognise it. One hope is that fundamentalism is also of concern to all the Great Powers that surround Afghanistan, China, India and Russia. Iran is also no friend of the Taliban. For twenty years the US presence has enabled them to avoid dealing with the threat posed by instability in Afghanistan, but now they will have to. China has always had its covetous eyes on the large mineral resources believed to lie under land south of Kabul and will doubtless move swiftly to bring Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
What are the strategic implications for Transatlantic Relations? It is somewhat galling to see European leaders complain about American actions given the weakness of the European effort in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. Most Europeans were only present in Afghanistan out of a sense of obligation to the US following the September 12th, 2001 invoking of NATO Article 5 collective defence. Few of them ever really believed in the campaign and all of them in one way or another, with the possible exception of the British and Canadians, limited their commitment and their operations, particularly rules of engagement, to such an extent that a required level of unity of effort and purpose was never really achieved. The failure in Afghanistan is thus as much European as American and should severely challenge European ideas of security in which values and interests merge to the point where policy becomes little more than strategic virtue signalling. If Europeans are not prepared to enter a theatre in which their interests are threatened unless they can leave the place better off then they will go anywhere. More crucially, it is high time Europeans came of age as strategic actors because that will be the only way to save NATO. Indeed, it is no good Europeans complaining about American policy and actions if time after time it is Americans who bear the overwhelming burden of risk and cost.
Where next for European security and defence policy? For almost three decades Europeans have been touting a values-based approach to security whilst relying on the US for their own hard defence. Take the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy or ‘CSDP’, which should be a vital stabilising component of a broad approach to Europe’s fractious and dangerous strategic neighbourhood. The ability of Europeans to put an EU flag on complex operations, as opposed to a NATO, US or other national flag, remains an important political contribution to crisis management and co-operative security. However, both CSDP, and its forebear ESDP, have been in existence for over twenty-five years and yet its tiny missions bear little or no relation to the claims Brussels routinely makes for them, or the real impact they have on the ground. It is as though Europeans are eternally practising for a return to the real world whilst never quite making it, whilst expecting the Americans to defend them whilst criticising the Americans for so doing. That is in no way meant to disrespect the sadly many brave Europeans who gave their lives in Afghanistan, but the debacle therein must finally mark the bonfire of false European assumptions and strategic illusions. European weakness is in fact European isolationism and the danger now is that the failure in Afghanistan will only reinforce the delusion that somehow soft security can substitute for hard reality, particularly where it really matters in Europe, Germany.
Was the sacrifice of so many Afghan and Coalition lives for nothing? To answer that question it is important to go back to December 2001. The West was reeling from 911 and another such attack seemed both imminent and inevitable. Afghanistan was an ungoverned space in which Al Qaeda was training its fighters. The US and its Allies swiftly prevented that and for twenty years also prevented Afghanistan again being used as a base for such attacks. The campaign in Afghanistan has not been a success, but then the very idea of ‘success’ for such a mission in such a place is misplaced. And yes, things could and should have been done a lot better but it is hard on balance to suggest, as some are, that the sacrifice was for nothing. What has changed are the circumstances and the nature and scope of the threat.
The options are limited. However, to mitigate this disaster the Biden administration will need to do something that might seem counter-intuitive – embrace the Taliban by holding them to the calming words they have been uttering over the past twenty-four hours, even on women’s rights. Sadly, experience of those areas of Afghanistan that have been under Taliban control for some time reveal a large gap between their words and deeds. The US and its allies will also need now to bring more pressure on Pakistan to help reign in the Taliban even if Islamabad fears India will seek to exploit the situation in Southern Afghanistan. Yesterday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said the Taliban victory had “broken the shackles of mental slavery” (he is a very different Imran Khan than the one I met at Oxford). Given Pakistan’s internal contradictions Prime Minister Khan might soon come to regret what he wished for.
The US and its Allies also need to engage China, India and Russia and seek some level of common cause, particularly over the issue of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will also need to be persuaded to limit their funding of Madrassas (schools). If not, then Afghanistan could well, indeed, once again become a haven for terrorism and a cauldron of Great Power competition. Above all, President Biden needs to take a long hard look at himself. It was strange listening to a US president, the leader of an administration that prides itself on human rights, particularly women’s rights, making a statement that British High-Victorian imperialist Lord Palmerston would have been proud of. America has neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, just interests? If there is one lesson for the Americans above all others from this debacle it is that they need friends more than ever, albeit capable friends. What the Afghanistan failure has also revealed is an America and a wider West that twenty-years on from 911, and some thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, does not really know for what it is fighting and why beyond vague aphorisms about happiness, prosperity and the American Way. And yet, implicit in the war in Afghanistan was a struggle between institutionalised multilateralism and red in tooth and claw Realpolitik. Realpolitik has been strengthened by this failure and violent extremists the world over emboldened along with 'might is right' China and Russia.
The hard truth is that the West, Americans, Canadians and Europeans alike no longer have any real idea what their security goals are, or how they should achieve them in a complex dangerous world beyond endless blah blah, particularly in Europe. There are few principles and even less doctrine with the result that policy is inconsistent and red lines meaningless. Indeed, no-one believes the West any longer has the strategic backbone or political will to enforce them. The Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Taliban and their ilk certainly do and in the wake of Afghanistan it is their anarchic vision of chaos which now has far more chance of prevailing given the nature of a retreat which turned a withdrawal into a defeat and then a political rout.
In the end Afghanistan found out the US and its Allies like it has so many before them and the implications for NATO in particular will be profound. The Americans will refocus their attention on warfighting and ‘pivot’ (to use that ghastly phrase) towards China and preparations for some hi-tech, high-end robotic future war. The British will go with the Americans as far as the British can, although the British will also claim they have gone far further than they actually have, just as the British always do. The French will join them, for all their empty rhetoric about European strategic autonomy (if they can ever get over Brexit), and the Poles will be their usual brave but marginal selves. Germany and the rest?
The future? As Kabul was falling another event was taking place. Seventy-five years to the day after Indian independence from Britain the INS Tabar (Battleaxe) sailed into Portsmouth, the fleet headquarters of the Royal Navy. The strategic implications are clear. Democracies the world over face a growing range of threats and to maintain the peace nothing short of a new idea of multilateralism must now be forged. Therefore, the West, Europeans in particular, have a choice to make at what is clearly a point of strategic inflection because the post-Afghanistan, post-COVID world is going to be very bumpy indeed. They can either collectively retreat into themselves and reinforce the catastrophic loss of strategic self-belief from which Western leaders are clearly suffering, or they can re-group and rebuild the Alliance for the twenty-first century by reaching out to like-minded others. That will mean having the political courage to learn the many hard lessons from the Afghanistan fiasco because the world needs democracies the world-over to legitimately engage danger together. At the very least, vacuous, risk-averse political leaders must no longer send a few well-intentioned civilian and military personnel to do their bidding and expect them to succeed if they have neither the political will nor determination to see such campaigns through.
Furthermore, whilst the West will continue to have more watches than time (to paraphrase that well-worn Afghan aphorism that also turned out to be a truism) unless it learns again to have strategic patience and match ends and ways with means then there will be more Afghanistans. There were failures and mistakes made by commanders in the field that were inevitable given the complex nature of the place and the mission. However, ultimate responsibility for this disaster must rest with political leaders primarily in the US and Europe who indeed willed the ends without the ways or the means. The men and women of both Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO International Security Assistance Force did their utmost to make flawed strategy and policy work. However, they were let down by their respective capitals trying to close a political gap which was not of their making and for which many paid with their lives. Ultimately, the disaster in Afghanistan is due to a catastrophic failure of political leadership.
In August 1842, British Indian forces under General Pollock returned to Afghanistan, inflicted a massive defeat on the Ghilji as revenge for the destruction of the British column a year earlier, and in September of that year re-entered Kabul. They also captured Dost Mohammed Khan, one of Afghanistan’s most powerful tribal leaders and the first commander of what might be called the Afghan Army. He asked his British captors a question. “I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country”. In the end, neither could President Biden.
Written by Julian Lindley-French