Afghanistan has fallen. The West has suffered its most humiliating defeat in many decades, and the implications for international peace are serious.
It is important to acknowledge the sacrifices of the many British soldiers and Afghan civilians who died or suffered from a seemingly never-ending war. Was it worth it in the end? The statistics clearly show some progress in areas such as and .
However, the return of the Taliban, an extremist group with links to known terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda, is ominous for regional stability. Having successfully waited out the American military presence (the Taliban never won a conventional battle against NATO) through a bloody insurgency that strongly incorporated terrorist tactics against civilians, these brutal fundamentalists now hold the key to Central Asia. Free speech, music and dance are already being curtailed, not to mention more to come on women’s rights.
As Tony Blair said, this group will take Afghanistan back to the 7th century or further. However, President Biden has made his decision, and so the priority had to be evacuation of the vulnerable. While Britain can no longer stay in Afghanistan, in the long term it can still perform counterterrorist strikes together with Western allies.
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The evacuation itself was a triumph of logistics and planning from both the British and Indian perspectives. Thousands of vulnerable Afghans, and British contractors were evacuated in operations that belied the chaotic state of affairs at Kabul airport. Evacuees including translators, interpreters, civilian contractors and other professionals who may be targeted by extremists had they stayed have been bravely rescued by the British in Operation Pitting.
India helped vulnerable and Afghan allies escape Afghanistan, in the interestingly named Operation Devi Shakti (Power of the Goddess). However, with the Taliban refusing to extend the cut-off date for evacuation of the vulnerable beyond August 31, the picture was bleak for many who could not get out – they may well become hostages of the triumphant new regime.
An important question to ask is what role America played in helping those Afghans who cooperated with it to escape persecution or worse? This is especially pertinent in the face of the tragic suicide bombing by ISIS at the airport and the disastrous failed drone strike which followed. The reputation of the US for competence has been shredded.
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The big behind the scenes winners of the Taliban victory in the short run would appear to be Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China, all of whom are believed by Western intelligence agencies to have diplomatically supported the Taliban, or actively supplied it logistically. All four wanted America out of their perceived back yard, and none are paragons of human rights.
Of the four, it is Pakistan more than any other force that has enabled the Taliban’s survival. It was responsible for the so-called “airlift of evil” in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in 2001, where the Pakistani Air Force flew out the leaders of the defeated Taliban in a clear act of treachery against NATO. The then Bush Administration would come to regret this in the years to come, as would the international community.
Osama bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaeda was found hiding only minutes away from the Pakistan Army’s main military academy – the Pakistani military was almost certainly aware of his presence. However, the victory will not play out for Pakistan how it hoped. Already there is talk of Western sanctions on Pakistan, and the Taliban are refusing to recognise the disputed Afghan-Pakistani border, both of which suggests trouble ahead for the Pakistani military.
It is also not all doom and gloom for Afghanistan. An anti-Taliban resistance group has emerged in Afghanistan’s narrow and well-protected Panjshir valley. It is led by Ahmed Massoud (the son of legendary Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was murdered by Al Qaeda two days before 9/11), and the Afghan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh. Already they have inflicted losses on the Taliban, consolidating their hold on the valley.
Considering that Afghan forces were able to hold out against the mighty Soviet Army for years in the Panjshir, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be able to defeat them easily. They are now receiving help from Tajikistan (a country that has long opposed the Taliban), and maintain covert ties with India.
More to the point, the big question to be asked of Biden and the Americans is why withdraw now, when there is consensus opinion in British elite circles that the West could have held out for years against the Taliban in a stalemate? The answer to that lies far to the East, in . In the aftermath of coronavirus, the US has come to see China as a bigger threat than Russia, a notion confirmed by Chinese expansionism and threats against Taiwan. The US likely feels that it could benefit from deploying forces against China, as opposed to having them being bogged down against the Taliban. The Taliban itself will probably be bogged down fighting ISIS; setting extremist groups against each other is an intelligent strategy, albeit sadly at the cost of more Afghan suffering.
In fact, the possibility that the Afghan withdrawal is part of the American plan to trap China is not being discussed enough in the media. The Chinese want a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan so that they can mine minerals in Afghanistan, and also outflank big rival India.
However, events are not going according to the Chinese script. Already Chinese civilian contractors are coming under attack from different extremist actors in Pakistan, causing casualties. Beijing is striving hard to avoid being dragged into Afghanistan or Pakistan, yet every week it looks more likely that it will be forced to deploy in some form to protect its interests. The US is cleverly using China’s own nationalism against it: it cannot fail to act in the face of threats to its citizens. However, it dreads being dragged into the so-called ‘graveyard of empires’, Afghanistan.
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It is true that will face a heightened terrorist threat. But it has done so for over three decades, this has not prevented it from rising into one of the most powerful countries in the world.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes deep inside Pakistan by the Indian Air Force in February 2019, it is likely that terrorist atrocities will not go unanswered by the powerful Indian military. That constitutes an intrinsic deterrent for India – the Pakistanis who sponsor regional and global terrorism have no desire for a repeat of their humiliating 1971 surrender to India (93,000 Pakistanis surrendered to India after only 13 days of war).
In fact, it is Britain which could now face an even more serious threat. The possibility of battle-hardened terrorists returning from Afghanistan to Britain (possibly disguised as refugees) and causing mass casualty terrorist attacks will be the cause of unease in London, as will the likelihood of Afghan heroin making its way to Europe and the UK via a vindictive Taliban.
The return of Al Qaeda to prominence after some years in the shadow of globally reviled ISIS is probably inevitable. This will be a threat to the West, however it can be managed with careful intelligence work and oversight. It is how China will cope with militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that will really decide how things play out.
is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.