The Biden administration botched the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the country in chaos. The Afghans who took part in the Western modernization attempt have been left at the mercy of the victorious Taliban.
United States President Joe Biden launched his foreign policy saying that “America is back.” To the Afghans, this may sound like bitter irony. In a few days, the Taliban managed to take over the whole of Afghanistan, including the capital city Kabul.
The Afghan army, although well equipped, proved ineffective. Some local leaders, like Ismail Khan of Herat, could not fight back as their militias were poorly armed – as opposed to the Taliban. The government in Kabul disapproved of strong local militias, and Mr. Khan is now a prisoner of the Taliban.
Afghanistan is a fascinating country. Covered by huge mountain chains, it was never successfully occupied by foreign powers – except for Alexander the Great, who marched through the region and found his stunning wife there, a Bactrian king’s daughter.
Big powers’ playground
Different ethnicities have preserved their self-determination. Pashtuns make the largest group, but there are also Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and some smaller ethnicities.
Afghanistan is in Central Asia, at the heart of the world’s largest continent, the vast Eurasian-African landmass. In the south, it links the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. It borders Iran in the west and China in the east. It is a Muslim country.
In the 19th century, it established itself as an independent buffer between two colonial powers, the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent and the Russian expansion in the north. The British tried twice to occupy it in the 19th century, only to suffer crushing defeats. Afghanistan remained independent, and its monarchy ably balanced the different forces in the region. After the Russian Revolution, when the Soviets began to extend their terror regime into Central Asia, Afghanistan was a haven of freedom, receiving many refugees.
Neutral during World War II, the country blossomed. King Mohammed Zahir Shah (1933-1973) recognized the different autonomous actors of the realm and played a unifying and stabilizing role.
When Moscow ordered its battered troops back, militant Islamic elements, the Taliban, won control of the country.
During the Cold War, big powers’ strategic interest in Afghanistan returned, only the U.S. and the Soviet Union replaced czarist Russia and the British Empire. The king’s government maintained a neutral stand. Then, in 1973, the king was deposed. The military coup received support from both competing powers, as each hoped to bring the new regime over to their side. Not surprisingly, this only created confusion and led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As the new regime was weak, it counted on Soviet support to stay in power.
The invasion ended a decade later in a disaster like that of the British in the previous century. During the war, the West supported the Islamic fighters against the Soviets, the Mujahedin. However, when Moscow finally ordered its battered troops back, militant Islamic elements, the Taliban, won control of the country.
The fundamentalist group was founded by a Mujahedin leader, Mohammad (Mullah) Omar. It imposed brutal rule in its territories and offered refuge to terrorists, including al-Qaeda. Its mastermind Osama bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan when he plotted his attacks that culminated in the 9/11 tragedy in the U.S.
The response from the U.S. was swift. The Americans put together a coalition of local anti-Taliban forces, invaded Afghanistan and in December 2001, swept the Taliban regime away. However, the fundamentalists retained significant support in the country.
A central regime, democratic at least in name, was installed, with the international community’s support, especially the U.S. Unfortunately, the central government proved ineffective. Washington and its allies worked for 20 years to build and train an Afghan army that, it was assumed, would preserve peace and contain the Taliban.
Despite an ineffective and partially corrupt government, much progress was made, especially in education. Of particular importance was that many women gained access to schooling, from elementary school all the way to the university level and were able to pursue professional careers. That part of the positive efforts of the last 20 years in Afghanistan is not likely to go entirely to waste.
Anatomy of the disaster
The intervention that the U.S. and its allies undertook in Afghanistan was never meant to last forever. However, President Biden’s timeline and lack of preparation created a disaster. It pulled the rug from under the Afghan defense system.
But not only the U.S. should be blamed; Europeans were also sleepwalking, naive and unprepared.
Foreign interventions meant to change regimes tend to fail. Countries have their own way of functioning, and foreign presence on their soil empowers radical groups instead of bringing peace. Theoretician “strategists” are ill-equipped to accomplish nation-building and developing institutions. Meaning well may not suffice to produce good things. Still, in assessing the situation in Afghanistan, we must not overlook the fact that much good was accomplished in that country over the last 20 years.
What we see happening these days is not only a betrayal of the people of Afghanistan – many of them allies. It is also a depressing display of incompetence in intelligence gathering, analysis and political process. The White House’s claim not so long ago that the government of President Ashraf Ghani and its armed forces could hold the country proved this. But not only the U.S. should be blamed. Europeans were also sleepwalking, naive and unprepared. The total confusion in Berlin on the pullout and rescue of its personnel showed the truth of this depressingly well.
Unlike mainstream Western voices, Geopolitical Intelligence Services stated ahead of time that the negotiations were doomed to fail, as the Kabul government would be swept away by the Taliban upon the retreat of the foreign forces.
President Ghani fled. Kabul fell as the world watched heartbreaking pictures of chaos at the airport. An Afghan tragedy. Instead of proposing ways to ameliorate the situation, President Biden’s statements appear somewhat cynical: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy … [it was about] preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.” Also, the president’s claim to have inherited the problem from his predecessors does not excuse the withdrawal’s shameful failure.
What is coming
Afghan people are the victims, especially women. The other casualty is the West’s credibility and its claim of maintaining a rule-based world order. To summarize the situation, one could quote the May 1940 observation of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George on London’s lack of support to its European allies against the Nazis: “Our promissory notes are now rubbish on the market.”
The previous Taliban regime handed out barbaric punishments, including chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning to death women accused of adultery.
Many governments, including some in Europe and New Zealand, now declare that the Taliban should be forced by other means, diplomatic and economic, to adhere to humanitarian standards. One does not know whether to cry or laugh at such blind naivety –or, possibly, cynical hypocrisy. Afghanistan’s direct neighbors and those further afield, including major powers such as Russia and India, are concerned about the emerging geopolitical void.
The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, died in 2013 while in exile. At present, the supreme commander of the Taliban is Hibatullah Akhundzada. He was a key person in the judicial system of the previous Taliban regime that handed out barbaric punishments, including chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning to death women charged with adultery. And he reportedly was an essential supporter of the destruction of historical artifacts ordered by Mullah Omar, like the Bamiyan Buddhas.
The supreme commander is likely to head the new government. The new regime has already prepared its structures. Publicly, the Taliban declared an “amnesty” across Afghanistan and promised to respect human rights and the rule of law – in accordance with Afghan tradition and Islamic law. The Afghan population, especially those who remember the medieval regime the Taliban imposed on the country in the late 1990s, fear the worst.