Somewhere in Afghanistan, a Taliban fighter must be holding a banner that reads, “Kabul by September 11th.” President Biden’s decision to withdraw all United States (and coalition) combat forces by that date always held dire consequences for the government of President Ashraf Ghani. But few predicted that the collapse would take place so suddenly, with Taliban control surging to about 85 percent of the country.
While many post-mortems will explain how and why this stunning reversal of fortune occurred with such rapidity, forecasting the likely consequences for Afghanistan, the region and U.S. policy and credibility is a more difficult task. Given the divergent interests and complicated politics that made Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires,” establishing clear-cut winners and losers will prove elusive at best.
Obviously, if or when the Kabul government falls or cedes power, nation-building and democratization, again, will be losers. A Taliban victory, likewise, does not mean a better future for that country. Very likely, Taliban rule will vary across the provinces.
In some cases, local war lords will remain in power, accommodate the Taliban or suffer strangulation by being cut-off from access beyond its limited areas of control. That could ignite local outbreaks of civil war and insurgencies against the Taliban. Whether these will be persistent and widespread will depend on the brutality of Taliban rule and the capacity of Afghans to continue the fight after decades of violence and conflict.
Pakistan will attempt to impose greater influence on the Taliban through the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). This will doom Prime Minister Imran Khan’s outreach to improve relations with the U.S. to failure. The U.S. has no illusions about Pakistan’s past duplicity in denying its support of the Afghan Taliban. And, as extremism grows, so will western concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
China most likely will play a more reserved role. Instability is not good for business. Aside from interest in Afghanistan’s rare earth mineral and other resources, China’s Belt and Road initiative is not suited for these conditions and thus won’t reach Afghanistan.
Russia will seek a more opportunistic posture to increase regional influence in large part to prevent spillover of violence and extremism. Even though it’s been more than 30 years since Soviet forces exited Afghanistan crossing the Friendship Bridge returning to the USSR, memories are not easily erased. And both Russia and China will make full use of American withdrawal in their propaganda and diplomacy to discredit the U.S. — with some success.
Iran, already exerting strong presence in Nimroz province and Herat, will try to expand that influence. Whether the Shia-Sunni tension and the continuing and growing drug trade will limit Tehran’s aims is an open question. No matter, Iran will exploit the U.S. withdrawal, possibly using access into Afghanistan as a means to circumvent many of the western sanctions.
For the U.S., no good deed goes unpunished. The Biden administration will be rightly chastised for abandoning many tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who supported and worked for coalition forces. Women will suffer.
Politically, while the Afghan debacle was a genuine bipartisan effort beginning with George W. Bush’s 2001 invasion and the subsequent slide into “nation-building” under Barack Obama’s administration, President Biden will take the blame. Republicans will use that to beat Democrats in the 2022 congressional elections, ironically for executing the promise Donald Trump made but couldn’t keep to end endless wars.
For allies, the change of presidents alone was reassuring to dismiss the notion of “America First” as U.S. policy. But this withdrawal and the descent of Afghanistan into some form of chaos will not be ignored. Whether the Biden administration can overcome this (tragic) setback will be made more difficult by the absence of confirmed U.S. ambassadors in too many important countries and a constipated approval process in the Senate.
Sadly, the U.S. military may suffer long-term negative consequences. After two world wars and Vietnam, the U.S. military imploded. It took a decade and a half for it to recover after the last helicopter lifted off the roof top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975. The force became “hollow,” meaning ill-prepared to fight. The first Iraq War demonstrated the return of American military power.
Despite efforts in Congress to add some $30-40 billion to a Defense budget of about $750 billion, the increases are for weapons systems the Pentagon says it does not need.
Given the myriad of crises confronting us, from COVID-19 to climate change, the Pentagon is unlikely to get a higher priority and risks following the past history of post-war declines — the ultimate casualty of the Afghan war.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book due out in December is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Danger to a Divided Nature and the World at Large.”
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