April 19, 2021
An open-ended US/NATO military engagement in Afghanistan was never an option. The aim was achieving optimal conditions for withdrawal.
In a Washington Post op-ed on March 12, 2012 President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron mentioned shifting to a support role in Afghanistan.
A year later, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told BBC Radio 4 that Afghanistan was an incredibly complex society; a multi-ethnic society that was very fragmented before the US-led intervention started and that the ability to influence outcomes from the outside was very limited. “The long-run solution to security has to be an Afghan solution; it cannot be imposed from outside,” he added. History had shown the futility of such attempts.
Read together, the foregoing clearly showed, nearly a decade ago, where the West was heading in Afghanistan.
While the Afghans have demonstrated an exceptional capacity for resistance to foreign military interventions, they have failed time and again to chart a progressive path to national unity.
As frustration grew and fatigue set in, emphasis on “Afghanization” became the main theme, portending withdrawal. This, the Soviets had also tried in the mid-1980s but to no avail. Thus, President Trump was left with no other choice than negotiating a phased withdrawal with the Taliban.
In order to pave the way, the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” between the Taliban and the US was signed in Doha on February 29, 2020. Throughout the text, one party is referred to as “the United States” and the other party as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban”. Because Washington “only recognizes” the Kabul government. It was a fig leaf.
The “road to peace” thus paved, negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban began on September 12. The Taliban, however, failed to meet its obligations regarding reduced violence. Because they knew that the tide had turned in their favor. Thus, the talks stalled.
Nonetheless, on April 14, after a courtesy call to President Ashraf Ghani, President Biden announced that US troops, as well as forces deployed by America’s NATO Allies and operational partners, will be out of Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The plan he said, had long been “in together, out together.”[i]
Initially, Moscow and Beijing saw the prospect of a lasting US/NATO presence in Afghanistan as a challenge. But as this became increasingly unlikely, they preferred to remain on the sidelines. Now this would change. Because both regard the spillover of violent extremism into Central Asia as a threat. They will not say “they are out, we are in”, but the question of Afghanistan would move up on the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. After all, with ideological roots in the Arabian Peninsula such extremism is primarily an Asian problem.
In the months ahead, priority of the Taliban would be expanding the areas under their control. Recapturing of Kabul would wait until later. The Taliban would neither fight al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, nor would they allow them to gain ground. Although all three share the same worldview, the Taliban would not allow for terrorist attacks beyond Afghanistan borders. Because they know that the dropping on April 13, 2017 of the “mother of all bombs” on caves used by Islamic State affiliates in eastern Afghanistan was a signal. Moreover, they too have learnt that there are other ways of spreading their distorted ideology.
With Taliban’s unstoppable ascendancy, yearnings for democracy, gender equality, women’s empowerment, educational reform, social and cultural progress will be off Afghanistan’s agenda.
Ataturk not only led Turkey’s War of Independence to victory, but he also accomplished all of the foregoing. Had a few others followed his example, the Middle East would have been a different place today.
In his remarks, announcing the withdrawal, President Biden referred to a visit he took to Afghanistan, to the Kunar Valley — a rugged, mountainous region on the border with Pakistan. He said, “What I saw on that trip reinforced my conviction that only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country, and that more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.” (emphasis added)
His admission confirms three Middle East lessons:
Firstly, nation-building is an endeavor for the people of a given country. External powers can only help. For this, a lasting commitment based on international legitimacy and cooperation is essential.
Secondly, cooperation with extremist groups in proxy wars is sure to prove costly.
Thirdly, military interventions trigger waves of migration.
And lastly, external military interventions must have an exit strategy.
Ankara also needs to digest these lessons.
All things considered, President Biden was right to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. But on the title of his remarks on the White House website, “The Way Forward in Afghanistan”, I beg to differ.