A deadly new era dawns in Afghanistan

A deadly new era dawns in Afghanistan
Opinion: Almost 20 years after they arrived, US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, leaving a resurgent Taliban and weak national government behind, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
6 min read
13 Jul, 2021
Kandahar, once the Taliban's spiritual capital has seen much fighting between government security forces and the Taliban on its outskirts in recent months [Getty]

As we approach 20 years since the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks and the contentious US invasion of Afghanistan, Washington appears intent on brushing off these looming milestones and the long-term repercussions for the same Afghan people they once came to "liberate".

Remarkably, the Afghan war has outlasted the tenure of three US presidents, and newly elected US President Joe Biden was fully aware that all bets pointed to him becoming the fourth if he didn't execute the formal withdrawal set out by former US President Donald Trump, despite the mess left behind.

On paper, the US is completing the long-planned withdrawal from Afghanistan under the premise of the "peace agreement" with the Taliban that the Trump administration brokered in Qatar in February 2020.

"In reality, the Afghanistan they are about to leave behind is not a far cry from the one they entered almost two decades ago"

In reality, the Afghanistan they are about to leave behind is not a far cry from the one they entered almost two decades ago.

The symbolic withdrawal of US forces is naturally viewed with a sense of victory by the Taliban, and their resurgent forces are ramping up attacks on key strategic districts as their footprint steadily grows.

At their peak, US forces had over 100,000 troops on the ground, and with over 3,000 dead servicemen and over 2 trillion dollars of expenditure, it's easy to see why it was dubbed the "forever war".

The extensive US-led NATO operations were always intended as a means to an end, namely that a sufficient buffer would be created to allow political stability and governance to take shape, and for Afghan state forces to be self-sufficient enough to take control of their own security.

But that's not what happened. The embattled Afghan forces struggled even with the might of the US army on their side, and now find themselves fighting a new deadly war with rejuvenated Taliban fighters.

As Taliban gains have proved in recent weeks, Afghan forces are at a sensitive and weak juncture. Large swathes of Afghanistan were already either in Taliban hands, or at best, contested. Now, Afghan forces may well give up many areas and focus their defence on key provincial capitals.

With minority militias slowly entering the picture, there are echoes of the "Northern Alliance" of the 1990s civil war. The Afghan government now has little choice but to strike deals with local militias, which only threatens a return to the days of influential military warlords calling the shots.

Furthermore, with the US and Europeans embarking on their symbolic retreat, it opens up a vacuum for regional powers to strike their own deals and stamp their authority in a strategic part of the world.

Much like the deadly Syrian civil war, the post-US Afghanistan risks opening itself up to influence from Iran, Turkey and Russia, as well as Pakistan, India and China who will each strive to manipulate the landscape to their own strategic benefit.

This means that Afghanistan will likely be as fractured and polarised as ever. Just as the withdrawal of the USSR in 1989 bought with it a deadly new dawn for Afghans, the US withdrawal of 2021 threatens a repeat of history.

Afghanistan - Taliban gains since 2014

According to US intelligence assessments, the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the US completes its withdrawal, which speaks volumes of the uncertainty faced by the Kabul government.

Gen Austin Miller, commander of US forces warned that  "Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on the trajectory it's on. That should concern the world."

The long-drawn-out negotiations between Washington and Taliban representatives eventually led to the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan on 29 February 2020. At the time, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that remaining US troops would serve as leverage to ensure the Taliban delivered on its promises.

In truth, the Taliban was fully aware that the US was negotiating from a position of weakness. The lack of US stomach to remain in the Afghan quagmire was hardly a secret. The US even failed to put a stop to Taliban offensives against regime forces before any agreement was signed.

Under a cloud of Taliban threats, Biden may well have hastened the withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Bagram Air Base, officially handed over to Afghan forces last week, as he was anxious to avoid further US casualties under his watch.

The official rhetoric, as underlined by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in recent discussions with Afghan Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, is that the US is invested in the "security and stability of Afghanistan".

"The lack of US stomach to remain in the Afghan quagmire was hardly a secret"

In a similar vein, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stressed that the US withdrawal will not necessarily mean the end of NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

Despite such diplomatic overtures, the eagerness of US and NATO forces to withdraw paints its own story, and moving forward, the US will have limited cards to play.

Other than the financial support it has already committed to, the option of airstrikes remains on the table. But again, this will prove fruitless if it only delays the inevitable, and Afghan forces prove too weak to capitalize on any Taliban setbacks.

Ultimately, there can only be peace in Afghanistan under a comprehensive diplomatic agreement between Kabul and the Taliban. However, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have largely floundered under a cloud of widespread mistrust, disagreements on power-sharing and ideological differences in the future governance of the country.

In either scenario, even if a roadmap to peace were to materialise, it may come on the back of military onslaughts from either side. The Taliban's strategy is simple: strike fear and dent morale by making rapid gains, particularly in traditional anti-Taliban heartlands of the north.

With the Taliban taking strategic towns and seemingly intent on encircling key provincial capitals such as Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, the Afghan government will negotiate from a position of weakness, especially, without the US on their side.

The Taliban always craved international recognition and the US played this card to sway them in peace talks in exchange for a commitment they would not provide al-Qaeda or other extremist groups a foothold in areas under their control. But if the Taliban are handed the keys to Kabul, they may care little if they can strike their own pacts with regional powers.

Of course, it is easy to pin the blame for this mess on US and NATO powers, successive Afghan governments must also bear responsibility. They have could have done much more to ensure stability, security, political inclusion, and tackle corruption. Instead, they brought too many weak national unity governments, failed to implement much needed economic reforms or build basic public services, and did not address poor education infrastructure.

Either way, as the US adventure comes to an acrimonious end, a deadly new dawn for long-suffering Afghans has only just begun.


Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.