President Biden has made a gutsy decision to withdraw all U.S. military from Afghanistan by September. The risk to the U.S. of a restored terrorism base in Afghanistan remains credible but is judged by the President to be containable. A hardline, violence-prone Muslim Taliban may simply grab full power in Kabul or, in the attempt, set off another civil war.
Last minute Kabul and Taliban power sharing negotiations are stalled. The democratic freedoms we helped establish and the rise of an educated class, including many women, are in extreme jeopardy. Have we made the best policy decision?
Our past record of exits from Afghanistan had consequences. After we heavily armed the Mujahideen factions to expel the Soviets in 1994, we just left. Civil war and the rise of the Taliban, mainly Pashtuns in their southern heartland, took Kabul in 1996 and allowed in Al-Qaeda.
After 9/11 in 2001, we invaded and defeated the Taliban/Al-Qaeda but our attention shifted quickly to Iraq. Again the Taliban rebuilt with key assistance from neighboring Pakistan. As our military began departing already in 2020, the well-armed Taliban surged in capturing more of rural Afghanistan. And today it is engaged in a brutal campaign of killing educated Afghanis.
U.S. exit 2021
Possible outcomes: 1) a power sharing agreement between Kabul and the Taliban; 2) a renewed civil war; or 3) a Taliban re-establishment of a caliphate in Kabul. A long overdue, U.S.-backed international effort at a political settlement through power sharing has halted. Taliban military commanders currently prefer outright victory, hence require more international pressure to accept it. Kabul thinks it can hold its own but no one knows for certain.
Complicating stability and peacemaking are other countries besides the U.S., each with their own agendas:
• Pakistan. It uses the Taliban in Afghanistan as a means to counter the influence of its perceived enemy, India. Indeed, the unsolved dilemma of U.S. military strategy has always been the sanctuary and assistance offered to the Taliban by Pakistan. Future risks for Islamabad, however, are an Afghan civil war, resulting refugees and the stoking of Pakistan’s own revolutionary Islamic extremists. Pakistan has brought the Taliban to the negotiating table but may lack the influence to keep them there.
• India. With well-developed ties with the Kabul government, New Delhi is deeply worried about the return of a Pakistan-supported Taliban government. While New Delhi is one of the Kabul government’s biggest aid providers, it worries that China will replace it with far bigger offers.
• Russia. Not to be ignored, Russia has revived old Soviet-era contacts, supplied light weapons to the Taliban since 2015 and joined in the disinformation campaigns portraying the U.S. with evil intensions.
• Iran. Shiite Iran initially supported the U.S. invasion in 2001 and the ouster of the Sunni Taliban. But that cooperation changed when the USG called it an evil empire. It thereafter joined the Taliban in agitating for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Interesting will be Iran’s attitude after U.S. troops leave.
• China: China shares a tiny border in the northeast. It opposes any refuge base for its own Muslim group, the Uighurs. While China seems to eschew military involvement, it reportedly has been courting the Taliban with promised future investments and plans to connect Afghanistan with its China/Pakistan economic development corridor.
• Stan countries. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are northern neighbors with ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Reportedly, the USG is thinking one of them might be a regional military base substitute for Afghanistan. Is so, we will be up against China’s and Russia’s own efforts to dominate them.
Maybe we have underestimated the value to U.S. global interests of a limited but sustainable military deterrence role in a geographic area where China, Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran — and multiple extremist groups including Al-Qaeda and ISIS — all seek a foothold.
Ironically, China now has the best prospect of replacing ours and India’s influence in Kabul through promises of significant investment/aid and a trade outlet to the sea through Pakistan.