With Afghan debacle, will allies trust US?
After 20 years of war and occupation in Afghanistan, American forces left Kabul in haste, leaving the US-installed government practically capitulating to the Taliban. President Joe Biden announced the US pullback from the war-torn country by Aug. 31, allowing the Taliban guerrilla fighters to blitz across the country and forcing the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, to flee—all in less than two weeks.
Countless narratives and books will be written about this latest humiliating defeat by the US in over a century of wars of intervention that had left most of the 70 countries it invaded ravaged but taking political routes far different from the US model the invaders had wanted to build. In the case of Afghanistan, Washington’s “regime change” policy was a disaster.
A month after 9/11, the US launched its war on Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom,” to deny the al-Qaida leader and believed mastermind of the terror attacks in New York, Osama bin Laden, a haven and oust the Taliban from power. Then President George W. Bush bragged about his dream: to destroy the terrorist network and build democracy in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was killed by US special forces in 2011. The $3 trillion-bankrolled war itself has left 47,600 civilians killed, and 35,000 Taliban and 2,443 US forces dead. Far from being liberal, the Afghan regime strayed into corruption, failed to unite warring tribes and warlords, and left 64 percent of the country’s 38 million people poor.
Afghanistan is a mountainous, landlocked, and resource-rich country in Central Asia. It sits on one of the world’s richest troves of minerals valued at $3 trillion, including uranium and rare earth as well as trillion barrels of oil reserves and natural gas. An old civilization, the country has been overrun by empires including the Greeks and British, who all eventually lost to Afghan resistance. Afghanistan fell into a long war in the last 40 years with the Soviets and the Americans. It is a “graveyard of empires,” a land of lost opportunities.
The Taliban—“students” in the Pashto language—emerged in 1994 in southern Kandahar. It was one of the factions waging a civil war for control of the country following the withdrawal of the USSR and subsequent collapse of the Marxist government in Kabul. It drew members initially from “Mujahideen” fighters who repelled Soviet forces in the 1980s. Following the US invasion, the Taliban melted away into remote areas where it began a two-decade long insurgency against the Afghan government and its Western allies.
Although an irregular but increasingly professional army with no payroll, the Taliban counts at least 80,000 fighters with reinforcements coming from Pakistan. Many recruits are young local farmers largely accepted by the people. They fight not for money but to drive out the US and its coalition partners and reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with a Sharia-dominated society. Their world view is a narrative of morality, justice, religion, and freedom from foreign forces. They view the foreign invaders as a threat to their families and their values.
Now in control, the Taliban led by Haibatullah Akhundzada, a 60-year-old Islamic legal scholar, faces the daunting task of establishing their legitimacy, consolidating their power, and gaining international recognition. The Taliban cannot afford a prolonged war anymore and is expected to form “an inclusive government” of all ethnic groups and patriotic political groups, including former Afghan officials. To promote stability, the transition may include holding elections to choose the first Islamic Emirate government.
In meetings with Taliban leaders held since July, China, Russia, Iran, and other Asian countries have pledged humanitarian aid and support for economic development such as infrastructure. Diplomatic recognition of the new Afghan government may happen within a month subject, however, to the Taliban leaders’ commitment to an inclusive government and protection of the rights of women.
It is unclear whether the Biden administration will have any role left to play from hereon. With such a debacle repeated once again and leaving the inept Ghani regime in collapse, the US government will have to repair its image lest it loses the trust of other allies.
Bobby M. Tuazon is director for Policy Studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance and teaches in UP Manila.